Modulating language learning

npj Summary: A study demonstrated non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve in adults enhanced language learning performance⎮1 min read

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Children can learn how to speak a new language with relative simplicity compared to adults, who discover learning foreign languages can be quite challenging and Mandarin Chinese is apparently one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Native speakers inflect the spoken word with four different tones that are exclusive to the language.

In a new research study, led by Bharath Chandrasekaran, scientists tested whether non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve (which supplies the outer ear with nerves) would improve a group of adult’s ability to classify Mandarin syllables that varied acoustically, to their correct tone category, by listening to their pitch. Previous studies in humans and animals have demonstrated this type of stimulation has benefited memory and attention, which is important to perceptual learning.

36 native English speakers who were not familiar with Mandarin Chinese were randomly allocated into three groups, one was a control group. Professional musicians were excluded from this experiment because musical experience would have enhanced their execution of the tasks. The results of the experiment demonstrated non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve improved participants ability to learn new speech categories of Mandarin Chinese. The authors also noted video game-based training has comparatively similar perceptual effects to individual's learning success.    

If you want to explore this fascinating study further, please read the free and open access article >> Non-invasive peripheral nerve stimulation selectively enhances speech category learning in adults published by npj Science of Learning.


Llanos, F., McHaney, J.R., Schuerman, W.L. et al. Non-invasive peripheral nerve stimulation selectively enhances speech category learning in adults. npj Sci. Learn. 5, 12 (2020).

Gabrielle Ahern

Managing Community Editor, npj Science of Learning Community

I have developed an interesting portfolio of skills and experience in science communication and content creation. My qualifications include a BA (GU), BMarSt.Hon (UQ), CertIV in TESOL (ACC), GCertTertTLP (UOW) and a GCertJ (UQ). You're welcome to contact me, if you would like to join the Community and contribute a blog about the mind, brain or education space.