Genes May Influence Language Learning, Study Suggests

May 29, 2007

If you get tongue-tied when trying to learn a new language, your genes may be to blame, a new study suggests.

While there is no gene yet found that is responsible for preprogramming a person with a given language, there does appear to be a link between types of two genes and the languages people speak.

The new findings could be the first sign of a subtle effect in which people's DNA could bias them toward learning a particular set of languages.

Robert Ladd and Dan Dediu at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland noticed the possible link while studying the genes dubbed Microcephalin and ASPM.

These genes play a role in brain development and appear to still be evolving in humans (get an overview of human genetics).

"I looked at maps of the distributions of the old and new versions of the genes," Ladd said. "And I said, that looks like the distribution of tonal languages."

In tonal languages, the same word can have widely different meanings depending on the inflection of the speaker.

The researchers scoured records of genes from societies around the world and compared their findings with the languages those groups speak.

While they didn't prove there's a direct link, they did reveal a strong connection between the versions of the two genes that people had and whether their native language was tonal or nontonal.

The results appear in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What Did You Call Me?

About half of all existing languages are tonal.

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