Want to improve learning a new language? Try nerve-zapping earbuds

As the world becomes more interconnected, the need to learn a new language becomes imperative. Despite the English language dominating areas like business, travel and entertainment, there are still billions of people who can only speak their own native tongue.

None the less, technology is seeking to cross the bridge between people who are unable to speak each other’s language. One of the ways of doing this is enhancing one’s ability to learn a new language.

This can be achieved by stimulating specific parts of the brain to refocus its electrical messaging and help calm down irregular electrical brain activity. The treatment. known as Vagus nerve stimulation, is usually done for those suffering from epilepsy or tinnitus and requires surgery.

However, Matthew Leonard at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues have developed an earbud-like electrode that can stimulate the part of the Vagus nerve that extends into the ear without the need for an implant.

The experiment has produced promising results, showing that participants fitted with a custom ear mold holding Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation improved sound recognition by 13% compared to those who also wore the device but received no stimulation.

“We think that vagus nerve stimulation may enhance learning by helping individuals pay attention to the right things during the learning process,” says Leonard. Although it was only tested with tones from Mandarin, Leonard says that in principle this could be applied to any language.

He is careful to point out that wearing the device for a few hours a day will not make people fluent but has the potential to provide enough boost to help people overcome hurdles during the language learning process.

See paper published: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41539-020-0070-0