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Can drugs deliver peak language learning performance?

Can drugs provide the best learning performance for language students?

At a recent Guardian newspaper and British Academy debate (Are drugs the answer to language learning – video highlights) some difficult questions were posed to a panel of experts and the audience over the potential future role of pharmaceuticals in language learning.

As a voice-over agency, we often have voice recordings in multiple languages taking place in the recording studios, so language learners play an important part in keeping our industry alive. But do we think this is a valid argument to take a drug to increase learning performance? Let’s look at the debate in a bit more detail and see…

“If there was a safe and effective cognitive enhancing drug, that actually increased your motivation and your pleasure of doing a task, would you take it to learn a language?” asked Professor Barbara J Sahakina of Cambridge University’s psychiatry department.

A surprising two thirds indicated that they would use this hypothetical drug.

Of course this kind of thing has been going on for a long time. Caffeine is not only one of the world’s most popular drugs, but it’s been used for centuries as an aid for concentration and wakefulness.

But as 21st century pharmaceuticals push back boundaries at an impressive pace, the debate has started to shift from a question of whether drugs that enhance mentally acuity can be created, to whether or not we should be using them at all.

There is no denying that the list of drugs that can perform this function is indeed growing, from familiar names such as Ritalin to the more obscure such as Modafinil.

Also present at the debate was Henk Haarmann, Area Director of Cognitive Neuroscience who was keen to point out some of the limitations of the use of drugs to enhance mental agility. His concerns were over exactly which aspect of learning a language, the drugs would enhance; “the tones of language, the phonology of language, the rules that form words, the morphology, the syntax?” he asked the audience.

More to the point, the hypothetical drug that Sahakina referred to remains just that, hypothetical. Current cognitive enhancers such as Ritalin are prone to misuse and abuse. Addictive after prolonged use, users are able to enhance the amphetamine like effect by crushing pills and snorting it; an act that can potentially lead to formication (the feeling that bugs are crawling under your skin), vomiting, hallucinations, seizures and even death. (http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/ritalin.asp)

Then there is the issue of motivation, which has a key role to play when anyone learns a foreign language. Reasons for learning can be extremely varied – from a move overseas to falling in love with someone who speaks a different language, to business reasons.

But, whatever their motivation, language learners all have one thing in common – it’s extremely hard work! So one interesting question, discussed at the debate and used as an argument against learning enhancing drugs, is whether taking them would reduce the sense of achievement and enjoyment that learners experience as a key benefit of their studies.

In conclusion, while Shakahina admitted that more long term studies were required, the question mark over some students gaining a competitive edge over others still looms.

After all, athletes are forbidden from using performance enhancing drugs and rigorous testing is applied to ensure that they don’t break the rules. Whether we will one day see mandatory urine tests outside of exam halls remains to be seen, but for now, at least, such medications can only be obtained legally with a prescription.