Genes for Learning Languages

Genes for Learning Languages

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted May 30, 2007 in DNA in General

I couldn’t do my Chinese homework because I lack the genes for tonal language.

~Imaginary Student’s Excuse

Creative, but no go. A recent study has found that two genes, ASPM and Microcephalin, may determine a person’s propensity for speaking tonal languages, like Chinese, back when languages were still evolving. These genes involved in brain development may have tipped some people to speak nontonal languages, like English, and probably evolved around 5,800 years ago. For more information, the authors have a layman’s description of their study online.

eating chinese food 1The most important takeaway message is that these kinds of data should not keep anyone from learning a new language. As with most behaviors, just because it might be easier for us to do one thing doesn’t mean that’s the only thing we should do. It strikes at the heart of genetic determinism. Do our genes determine what we do or do we? I believe in the latter. Challenges, genetic or otherwise, can be overcome with hard work.* Unless you’re this man in the cartoon who’s been gifted with a new brain.

*Now, don’t argue with me over this. I know there are exceptions. But diligence goes a long way. Now get back to work!

NB: More discussion at Gene Expression.

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Comment by Hsien

For anyone who’s interested, an old post from Genetics and Health about using genes as an excuse.

“It’s genetic.”

Chances are, you’ve used this as an excuse sometime or other to explain why you’ve chosen to do something a certain way. Shopaholic? It’s in my genes. Jerk? It’s in his genes. Slacker? It’s genetic. Soccer fanatic? Born with the gene. Couch potato? My dad gave me the genes.

On the one hand, it shows that genetics is very much on people’s minds nowadays. On the other hand, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of genetics and inheritance. Just because a trait is influenced by genes doesn’t mean you have no control over it. Genes do not act alone. Gene activity is moulded by behavior and vice versa. You have a choice to alter how you and your body cope with your genes.

Of course there are limitations imposed by your genes. Some of us will never be taller than 5 feet and others (like Jennifer Lopez) will always be pear-shaped no matter how fit we are. At some point, though, genetic technology will make it possible to fiddle around with our genes. When that happens, will we still have the excuse that we can’t help ourselves because of our genes?

Comment by laura Subscribed to comments via email

shouldn’t there be a side of fava beans,and a glass of chianti with that?

those are chopsticks sitting next to his chinese
takeout carton of brain.


Comment by Hsien

lol Definitely chopsticks. I don’t know much about Hannibal Lecter and would have thought he just sucked that stuff up through his teeth?!


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