Chantel Prat, associate professor in the UW department of psychology, and a team of researchers at the UW recently published a research paper in the June-July 2016 edition of Brain and Language reporting their usage of quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG), a technology that predicts the speed at which adults can learn a second language.
The qEEG procedure is measured via externally-applied electrodes, which quantify the intensity of brain waves across varying frequencies. It works by placing a headset lined with an array of electrodes around the rim of one’s head above the ears, and then reading the brain waves as they pass through the skull. An application of saline solution between the electrodes and the scalp further enhances the sensors’ detection.
Prat’s study is the first to use such technology for the application of examining the capacity to learn another language. Additionally, the method uses commercial-grade qEEG equipment that could be bought by members of the public, making it less expensive and less complicated than using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for the study’s purpose.
Specifically, Prat and her associates examined resting state qEEG readings from 16 participating test subjects, all of whom only knew English. These resting state readings were taken over five minutes of inactivity, meaning they closed their eyes in a dark room and thought about as little as possible.
After this, the participants then used the Operational Language and Culture Training System, a military-grade language learning software, to perform a series of up to 32 lessons on French. Participants were only allowed to progress onto the next lesson if they achieved a score greater than 50 percent on a given section, and were given 16 30-minute sessions over eight weeks to progress as far as they could. At the end of the eight weeks, their progression was compared to their resting state qEEG readings at the beginning.
According to their findings, the researchers determined that elevated intensities of low-beta waves in the right hemisphere of the brain, especially in the right temple and right parietal regions, during resting state qEEG correlated to a 60 percent variance in the language learning rate of the participants. In other words, evaluating the low-beta waves in the qEEG scans matched how the students progressed through the lessons for 60 percent of the students.
This percentage is quite high for the purposes of being an indicating factor of language learning.
“This predictor was better than any of the behavioral tasks we had, which are usually more common predictors people use to try and see how well you learn another language or any other learning task,” said Brianna Yamasaki, a graduate student in the department of psychology.
These findings are remarkable, not only due to the simplicity of qEEG compared to MRI technology, but because of the future implications for the field of language education, Prat said. This effectiveness is also increased by how qEEG devices are especially effective at detecting low frequency brain waves, like beta waves, compared to higher frequency waves.
Individuals in a language learning class with lower levels of low-beta waves in the right-hemisphere can be marked as needing additional consideration, allowing them to maintain comparative performance with the rest of a class. On the other hand, those who had not considered learning a second language might be encouraged to do so if they discover that they have higher levels of low-beta waves, because it might not be as difficult as expected.
Additionally, technology currently exists in the forms of transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial alternating stimulation, which respectively use magnetism and low voltages to enhance sections of the brain in firing on a certain brainwave frequency. With these techniques, brains could be primed toward the brain state conducive to learning another language, Yamasaki said.
Further experiments on the subject are already being carried out by Prat and her group, with results currently corroborating the results of this study.
“We have since run about 50 participants, and many of them through twice the amount of training, and the results are replicating,” Prat said.
The team is quite hopeful about where this study will lead them in future research on the topic.
“It’s a really exciting finding something that’s relatively novel, and I think that there’s a lot of room to grow on it, a lot of room to expand,” Yamasaki said.
Reach contributing writer Alan Brazelton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AlanBrazelton