- There may be certain areas in the brain that are enlarged or extra efficient that could lend some language learners an advantage.
- Studies show that it becomes more difficult to learn new languages as you get older.
- Neuroscientists are still trying to understand all the various brain regions involved in learning language.
In his spare time, an otherwise ordinary 16-year old boy from New York taught himself Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Swahili, and a dozen other languages, the New York Times reported last week.
And even though it's not entirely clear how close to fluent Timothy Doner is in any of his studied languages, the high school sophomore -- along with other polyglots like him -- are certainly different from most Americans, who speak one or maybe two languages.
That raises the question: Is there something unique about certain brains, which allows some people to speak and understand so many more languages than the rest of us?
The answer, experts say, seems to be yes, no and it's complicated. For some people, genes may prime the brain to be good at language learning, according to some new research. And studies are just starting to pinpoint a few brain regions that are extra-large or extra-efficient in people who excel at languages.
For others, though, it's more a matter of being determined and motivated enough to put in the hours and hard work necessary to learn new ways of communicating.
"Kids do well in what they like," said Michael Paradis, a neurolinguist at McGill University in Montreal, who compared language learning to piano, sports or anything else that requires discipline. "Kids who love math do well in math. He loves languages and is doing well in languages."
"This is just an extreme case of a general principle," he added. "If you practice and have a great deal of motivation for a particular domain, you're going to be able to improve in that domain beyond normal limits."
Very young children are remarkably good at learning multiple languages simultaneously. They can develop native-sounding accents in each tongue. And into adulthood, all reinforced languages hold their own in the brain without interfering with the others -- unlike later learners who may have trouble remembering a second language when they begin to learn a third.
With age, though, it not only becomes tougher to learn new languages, there may even be developmental stages beyond which certain nuances of language simply become inaccessible. By the age of 9 to 12 months, for example, babies begin to lose the ability to distinguish between sounds that are not used in their native language, said Loraine Obler, a neurolinguist at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.