In our lives and culture there are certain taboos, ranging from mild to particularly offensive. Burping in public, PDAs, abortion, discussing a person’s sexual orientation- these can upset some people, and we avoid them, or at least don’t talk about them. Another of these is drug taking- seen on the whole as inappropriate or unacceptable, when in actual fact drugs are taken by a wide range of people for a number of different reasons: caffeine, nicotine, pain killers etc.

And now research has indicated that drugs may exist which would enhance and improve our ability to learn a language. Wow!! How many of us feel that we aren’t good language learners, and would like some way to get ahead with this one task. For English native speakers at least, language learning is a challenge- we are in the minority around the world of people who speak only one language, and so this would be a wonderful step forward to being able to compete on the international stage better.

But what are the moral and ethical implications of medically enhanced education? Would you take a pill if it would help your ability to learn? The British Academy and the Guardian debated this point (July 2014), and covered some very interesting areas. To watch this, the short version is here, and the long version is here.

Barbara J Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, made the key point that one function of cognition-enhancing drugs could be to make tasks that are more difficult more pleasant and enjoyable. “If we can boost our cognition and have fun at the same time, that has to be a good thing.” Other key reasons for taking a cognition-enhancing drug would be to get the “competitive edge” in academic study, or to keep awake or alert (in the case of shift workers or pilots, for example). But the drugs in mind are ones such as Ritalin/methylphenidate or Modafinil/Provigil, which have certain inferences which go with their names.

Memories from language learning at school bring back the tedium of rote learning, and the reluctance with which we ouvred our livre at page 25, just to find out what François and Mathilde were up to today. So something that could make learning a language more interesting should surely ring home with quite a few of us, especially those of us who have to learn a language, not by choice, but through circumstance.

However, language learning isn’t just about words and sounds – it’s also about culture, and that can’t be brought to us by a pill. Sitting in a café in Paris letting French wash over you has to be one of the most enjoyable things in the world, or picking up a couple of words of a language to try to speak when in a new country, and seeing the happiness on the local’s face, even though you have just mangled their beautiful language. When I think back to the different countries I have lived in, and the languages that go with them, memories flood back of circumstances when I made a linguistic faux pas, for example when I told a friend in Spain that I was embarrasada about something, technically telling them I was pregnant! As with any memory, language ones are to be cherished.

More research of course needs to be done on the effects of cognitive-enhancing drugs on healthy people, and what these drugs will do to us as a society. But that the possibility is there opens so many doors for us, and despite the negatives, is an exciting step forward for language learners. Would you take the pill?

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