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Would you take a drug to learn a language better? Guardian Debate Summary

drugs for learning languages

The question from the title is not merely rhetorical. I was fortunate to attend a debate today which discussed this question in quite some detail. This post is a summary of this debate, and a voice from another perspective. I would like to invite you in as well: are performance drugs the future of foreign language learning?

0. Warnings and disclaimers

None of the things mentioned here are recommended by me. Don’t take anything without consulting your doctor. Do not attempt things without checking what the health effects may be. Do not treat this post as a prescription, a study guide, or an endorsement of any drug.

Got that? OK, read on.

1. Background reading

Before you go all in – some links and resources to get you started:

2. Dramatis personae, and their initial standpoints

(In order of presenting them)

  1. Henk Haarmann, Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Maryland: Henk Haarman sees the economic and cognitive benefits to learning a foreign language. When taking into account the studies on performance-enhancing drugs, and their effect on language learning, he suggests looking carefully at several criteria: have the effects been cross-replicated in several labs? What are the estimates of effective size of the sample? Do the drug’s effects persist? Do they transfer to other aptitudes? Do they generalize – i.e. is a person able to perform better in all languages, or does their proficiency suffer somewhere else? Once we take these criteria into account, says Mr Haarman, not many studies on those drugs actually pass the hurdles. As it turns out, the research is in its early stages and one must be careful to generalize. Mr Haarman was hopeful for the future of this research, but sceptical as to its current use.
  2. ShaoLan Hsueh: The founder of Chineasy had the fortune of being surrounded by people who succeeded at learning languages very well – without such drugs. She had to go through her English learning journey the hard way – and tried to figure out a way for her England-born children to pick up some Chinese. There was no pattern, at least not an easy one: that is because – according to ShaoLan – language is the messy essence of our humanity and legacy. Her Chineasy demonstration brought this home: the character for “woman” is tied up in several other characters in Chinese, often in quite a sexist way! However, by understanding that language learning is a process of joyful discovery, she finds that no drugs are needed.
  3. Daniel Tammet FRSA: Daniel writes, translates and finishes his novel. His first language is English, but his home language is now French – which enables him to read more translations as well. Daniel considers multilingualism to be a blessing to writers and authors – and gives Ryszard Kapuściński as his example (my man!). Kapuściński’s travels took him to parts of the world where monolingualism was a major disadvantage: everyone spoke several languages where he traveled. Daniel found this to be the case – and he also discovered that the languages he did best in were the ones he loved the most. He is critical of the chance for a language-learning pill to replicate that – especially since the processes of language need to be learned with patience, love and time if they are to lead to good and full understanding of things like speech acts and pragmatics. You may know the word for “thank you” in every language, says Daniel, but will you be able to appreciate how much more often it’s used in British conversations than in Dutch ones? Language, for Daniel, is always a side effect of a much larger goal – such as falling in love – and it would be dangerous for drugs to become a substitute for the goal itself.
  4. Professor Barbara J Sahakian: To all the coffee-drinking, nicotine-inhaling users in the room: would you take a drug we’re talking about if it helped you perform? The show of hands in the room said yes! Professor Sahakian conducts research on people who actually need these kinds of medication to function on an equal footing with the rest of us. She has found that these can, for example, increase performance of pilots in flight simulators – and that healthy people (even bright ones) benefit from a cognitive boost when administered those. They exhibit improvement in planning and problem solving, and sleep-deprived test patients (such as surgeons) become more cognitively flexible and less impulsive when given the medication. Professor Sahakian observes three areas in which these are used “recreationally”: to help achieve competitive edge (e.g. during A-levels), to deal with jet-lag or sleep disturbance, and to increase task-related motivation. Before we rush to give those to language learners, though, there are several safety problems: there are no research results analysing the long-term safety of those drugs, or their long-term efficacy. And there are several ethical concerns around the imagined use of them (involving coercion, pressure, disparities in society). So whilst it may be temtping to take those pills to help us do our work, professor Sahakian was worried that we’re not doing enough to achieve work-life balance in the first place.

3. The worst-case scenario (my own note)

See what you’ve missed? I enjoyed the debate that followed so much that I’m not going to summarize it here – look for it online soon and watch what happens!

I may just add one thing to the conversation. Everything so far was said from a very Anglo-centric perspective: people who speak today’s lingua franca may find it very easy to discuss balance, passion, joy and love in learning other languages. But in ShaoLan’s story, there was a moment when she didn’t speak of this: she said “I had to learn English, I had to watch all those films and TV…”

This is what I’m talking about. For many people around the world, learning a foreign language means just one thing: learning English. And for them, Shakespeare and multilingual joys of literature or poetry are pretty low on the list. If this is what a bearable job depends on – if that’s what gets you a better place at a better university – if English is required to get ahead in life – then millions of people globally will want to learn it fast, well and be done with it.

And – sadly – if there is a pill that gives them that 10% better test scores, they will take it. Even if it’s untested and very expensive. Even if it’s sold on the black market and has unknown side effects.

The performance-enhancing drugs for language learners will not be the soma that Aldous Huxley describes in such rosy terms: it will be the Snow Crash, sold and craved in quite different circumstances.

4. What’s your polyglot poison, guys?

Let’s have it, then. Your secret prescriptions. Your miracle dishes. A drink, perchance? If it’s legal, share it below. Prost!

(Photo credit: @sandymillin / eltpics)


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