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The Secret to Learning Foreign Languages

Trying to learn a new language? It helps to really, truly love it. Our brain’s pleasure trigger, dopamine, can actually facilitate learning, which makes studying languages easier. Michael Erard, author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, explains.

If you want to improve at languages, you should manage your dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that operates in the brain’s reward circuit. When we do certain things, a little dopamine is released in our brains, telling it that we just did something pleasurable, which ensures that we do that pleasurable thing again. People who learn many languages do it because they’re attached to the pleasure of it. More than 95 percent of all the respondents to my online survey reported, “I like languages” as the reason they could learn languages more easily than other people.

I’ve argued that this liking is brain-related, as in “I like what happens to my brain when I’m studying languages.” Of course, someone who says she “likes languages” could be covertly admitting that she likes the social status conferred on people who have many languages. I didn’t get this sense from my survey, though. “Learning a language is an utmost pleasure to me,” one person wrote on the survey. “The pleasure of a large interior world,” someone else wrote. “Appreciating the beauty of human speech sounds.” “Exercising the brain just for the fun of it.” These don’t seem to be people motivated by climbing the social heap—they enjoy the neurological rewards of learning.

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