How well we pick up language is in our genes

Our genes affect how well we pick up language as children, according to a new study.

We usually start to speak at around 9-18 months old, going from a vocabulary of 50 words to more than 50,000 by the time we’re 16. Aside from some lone prodigies, we begin by babbling to replicate speech before using one word utterances then moving on to the two word stage.

At 15-18 months, young children are usually still only using one word at a time, and this is the developmental stage where scientists from the University of Bristol discovered a strong link between changes near the ROBO2 gene and the number of words in a child’s vocabulary. With the help of international colleagues, they looked at data from 10,000 children and found that this gene tells the ROBO2 protein to instruct brain cells to develop and produce language. This means not only that researchers now have more information about how language acquisition takes place, but also about why some children can struggle to read and retain words.

Dr Beate St Pourcain, who jointly led the research, said that the study ‘strengthens the link between ROBO proteins and a variety of linguistic skills in humans’. One of the study’s lead authors, Dr Claire Haworth, pointed out that this backs up information from studies of twins, suggesting that DNA could be a rich resource for furthering understanding about the physical aspects of language learning. It might also mean that children who show signs of learning difficulties like dyslexia could be identified and helped a lot sooner.

Image via Brian’s Flickr.

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Diane Shipley