I have a surprise for you. You probably guessed pretty quickly that my last post, “Newly discovered fish accelerates language acquisition,” was an April Fool joke. If the date of April 1st didn’t give it away, the name “Avril La Blague” (“April the joke”) or “Poisson d’Avril” (which is the French expression for “April fool”) did. Yes, I admit it: I made up the story about the Amazonian fish and the French botanist who discovered it, but the compound Valproic acid and its miraculous properties for accelerating language acquisition are actually real!
Takao Hensch, the professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University named in the article, is a real person. His team made the discovery that Valproic acid appears to be able to help people learn perfect pitch (the ability to identify a the pitch of a musical sound without any reference point) and learn a second language the way children acquire their first.
Before we get too excited, it’s worth pointing out that this is no shortcut to learning a language. This is not “French in a pill”. Also, it’s a myth that children don’t have to work at a language to learn it: they have to study, learn and practise French just as much as adults do, but they appear to learn sounds better than adults which is a key advantage. Since they’re often fully immersed and have no base language to communicate with, they have no choice but to work hard to acquire language.
It is generally true that a child will learn the sounds better and tends to pick up grammar without interference from grammatical structures present in their mother tongue, so they can avoid so-called transference errors that plague adult learners. The truth, though, is that adults are capable of learning a language much faster than an infant, if they’re willing to do the work. Adults actually have significant advantages to learning a language over infants and can acquire fluency in a matter of months if they work hard. Compare that with the years it takes a child to reach the same level. And now, new adaptive learning technologies like Kwiziq can help dramatically accelerate learning French by discovering exactly what students need to work at and focussing them on that.
Valproic acid, also known as Valproate, is a powerful mood-stabilising drug used to treat epilepsy and some psychiatric disorders. It carries a higher risk of birth deformities and disorders for pregnant women and infertility in men, and it can cause weight gain, liver and kidney problems, drowsiness, aggression and a long list of other disturbing potential conditions.
The study that announced the result (“Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch“) was also only conducted on a very small number of participants: eleven men took Valproate, compared with a placebo-controlled group of twelve men. There are several significant problems with this from a scientific perspective.
Firstly, eleven people is not sufficient to draw statistically significant data from (though it can be enough to suggest further study is worthwhile).
Secondly, although the experiment appears to be so-called “double blind placebo-controlled” where neither the scientist nor the subject know who is taking the real drug, Valproate has strong psychoactive properties; you know if you’ve taken it because you feel different. This may not be a problem, since experiments in mice with the drug had already shown apparent learning advantages – but it does need pointing out, especially in light of the many studies that show that humans learn more effectively when they have positive beliefs about their ability to learn, or experience learning difficulties when exposed to negative stereotypes.
Finally, some techniques have claimed to teach perfect or absolute pitch to adults before but the ability vanishes again without continued practise. Until there is a follow-up study with Valproate, it is not known if its effects are permanent.
Whilst it is a fascinating possibility that chemistry can be used to enhance learning in the way steroids can enhance musculature, these are risky paths to follow.
There are much easier, less risky ways to learn a language quickly. The truth is, the one thing that is guaranteed to help you learn more quickly, is to put the hours in. The real myth around language learning is that it’s hard. It isn’t hard; there’s just a lot to learn and people simply don’t practise enough.
If you want to improve your French, there’s no secret. Make regular time for it in your schedule and practise!
Keep a record of how much time you put in. You need to rack up a few hundred hours for each CEFR French level (see: How long does it take to learn French) although our system can help shorten that. Our basic account is free so you’ve nothing to lose by trying it, and a whole world of French to explore.