A Language Learning Pill?

Does learning a language while you sleep sound like too much work? One scientist is predicting that some time within the next 30 years, all you’ll have to do is take a pill to become instantly fluent.

Nicholas Negroponte, an architect and futurist who founded MIT’s Media Lab, made the prediction in a TED Talk released in July. Negroponte is the founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, which provides children in developing countries access to inexpensive laptop computers. He is famous for having predicted a host of technologies that we now take for granted, like WiFi and the touchscreen.

As quoted in the Daily Mail, here’s how Negroponte sees the future of language learning (and literature classes):

‘You’re going to swallow a pill and know English. You’re going to swallow a pill and know Shakespeare.’

‘And the way to do it is through the bloodstream. So once it’s [the information in the pill] in your bloodstream, it basically goes through and gets into the brain…and the different pieces get deposited in the right places.’

That seems like it would be a difficult feat to accomplish. Learning a language is about more than just memorizing vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, after all.  Speaking a second language alters your brain in a number of different ways, such as helping to protect against Alzheimer’s disease and helping toddlers to better focus their attention. Would learning a language from a pill have the same effects?

So far, the closest thing we have to a language learning pill is a drug called valproic acid. It’s a mood-stabilizing drug that has shown promise in making it possible for adults to learn to have perfect pitch, a skill that is usually impossible to learn after a certain age. So, in theory it could make it easier for adults to pick up another language if they do the work to learn it, just as infants and toddlers have an easier time learning multiple languages.  

Also, as a former English Lit major, I have to say that I find the idea of taking a pill and “knowing Shakespeare” almost offensive. It’s like reading the Cliffs Notes-you might understand the plot but you haven’t experienced the art.

Do you think language learning in pill form will be possible one day? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credits: Attribution Some rights reserved by Rod Senna

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