Read aloud Time and again in the story, reports are appearing about people who seem to be able to learn foreign languages ​​with ease and, at the end of their lives, are fluent in ten, twenty or even several dozen languages. Does this extraordinary ability primarily have genetic causes or is it also learned? Scientists are still disagreeing on which factors play the crucial role in language acquisition - a question that also affects normal-gifted people. His name is Ziad Fazah, and his genius is at first glance unimpressive: the 51-year-old Lebanese speaks 58 languages ​​fluently, including Chinese, Thai, Greek, Indonesian, Hindi and Persian. Most of these languages ​​Fazah taught himself. But it takes a lot of stamina and discipline, explains the Multilingualuist, who even made it into the Guinness Book of Records with his talent. Fazah is by no means alone with this extraordinary talent for language: Throughout history there have always been such language geniuses. For example, the Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti became famous. He lived from 1774 to 1849, spoke fluent over 70 languages ​​and thus holds the world record for multilingualism. To this day, the rumor is that he had learned the languages ​​when he took the confession of foreign-speaking believers.

But why is it that some people learn languages ​​with such enviable ease, while others barely get beyond school English and a few bits of holiday Italian? Katrin Amunts from Forschungszentrum Jülich investigated this question and examined the brain of the German language wonderer Emil Krebs, who mastered over 60 languages ​​at the time of his death in 1930.

The so-called Broca center, a brain area responsible for speech production, was structured differently in cancer than in eleven control brains, the scientist observed. The "cell architecture" showed different interconnections, which information could probably be passed through the language center faster, Amunts suspects. But to speak of a clear link between the microstructure of the Broca Center and language proficiency, at least ten such brains need to be studied and compared, Amunts explains. However, based on her observations, the researcher suspects that giftedness is genetically predisposed.

Ulrike Jessner-Schmid, linguist at the University of Innsbruck, approaches the phenomenon of language acquisition with a different approach: "Everyone can learn foreign languages ​​if they really only want to, " she explains to ddp. The researcher admits that natural dispositions such as hearing play a specific role. However, Jessner-Schmid sees the will to integrate as a crucial point in the acquisition of languages. "Kids at the playground learn foreign languages ​​so fast because they want to be accepted by their playmates. They want to integrate and be part of society. "Ad

This ability is not limited to children, says Jessner-Schmid. "Even adults can learn foreign languages ​​as good as their mother tongue, if they get involved in the country and people. We know enough examples of that! "With a wink, she advises her students:" If you really want to learn English, go to England and find a friend there! "

When asked how anyone can learn 70 languages, Jessner-Schmid also has no plausible answer. "When you think about how much time and resources it takes to learn and maintain a language, you have to assume that these people have not done anything else their entire lives."

For scientists around Andrea Mechelli from University College in London, language acquisition also plays a key role in brain structures. In a study published in the journal "Nature", the researchers compared the language centers of monolingual and bilingual people on the basis of magnetic resonance images. The subjects, who had grown up bilingually, had a higher density of gray matter than those who had learned only one language, the scientists observed. The earlier the subjects acquired the second language, the denser the gray matter. The gray cells grew with the demands placed on them.

So while neurologists and linguists are still disagreeing on the causes of particular language abilities, one thing is clear: intelligence does not play the main role in language acquisition. An impressive example of this is the mentally retarded Christopher, who has been enthusiastic about languages ​​and foreign language texts since he was six years old and can express himself in more than 19 languages. A so-called island talent, an extraordinary talent of mentally handicapped people, has also been observed in children with Down syndrome. Although people with an island talent usually have an intelligence quotient of less than 70, they are capable of outstanding performance in individual areas. But only a few hundred such cases are known worldwide.

ddp / Birgit Buchroithner

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