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 / science.de Birgit Buchroithner