Could drugs help us learn languages?

Recent research has found that cognition-enhancing drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil, which are typically prescribed to treat behavioural conditions like ADHD, may be effective at improving language learning skills. As exciting as this may initially seem to those of us who have spent many a frustrating hour trying to conjugate our verbs, is it really as good as it sounds?

There are three main reasons these drugs are thought to improve language learning ability. These are:

  • Improving alertness
  • Motivation
  • Getting a ‘competitive edge’.

Medicines such as Ritalin are used to help people with ADHD and similar disorders to focus on the task at hand and stick at activities for longer. This is obviously highly desirable for those of us looking for a quick fix in our language learning. Once we’ve tried all the apps, CDs and evening classes, wouldn’t it be lovely to take a tablet to help us realise our bilingual aspirations with minimal effort? We can stay alert throughout those boring verb tables, stay motivated and keep one step ahead of the competition, all with the magic of a pill!

Other drugs, such as caffeine and nicotine, display similar effects. Some of us rely on coffee to keep us awake while we’re poring over books, while others find that nicotine calms them down and helps them concentrate on the trickier aspects of a language.

However, don’t go making an appointment with your GP just yet. As exciting as the potential for these cognition-enhancing drugs may be for language learners, many scientists admit that there is not yet enough evidence to draw any strong conclusions about these claims. Much of the research has been carried out in people with existing conditions such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, and there are many more studies which need to be carried out before these drugs become a reliable source of linguistic miracles.

Furthermore, while they may help you learn the language itself, drugs are no substitute for learning the cultural context of a language. You may learn Japanese to a very high standard, but without understanding the cultural usage of the language, you could find yourself in hot water in an important business conversation or on your holiday to Tokyo.

To give yourself the best chance of success in your chosen language, we can help. We can advise you on the right programme to suit your needs, helping you get the language advantage in business and leisure.

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