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The Language Gene FOXP2 (Quick Read)

Main image of blog post over language gene FOXP2, showing the image of a gene and a hand.

There was something different about this British family. For some reason, half of the family experienced great difficulties in speaking it’s mother tongue flawlessly! To illustrate with an example, the 15 affected members did not decline verbs in the past tense. On the other hand, adding an s to verbs following he, she, or it seemed to be a struggle. Little did the family, also called the KE family, know that their anomaly would spark a worldwide discussion about and research on the existence of the language gene FOXP2!

You see, the speech disorder had already persisted for three generations in this family! The family members, then, underwent genetic analyses, which led to the discovery of the soon to become famous language gene.

But do these findings irrefutably prove a language gene that is all by itself responsible for our ability to speak? Let‘s enter this captivating discussion by explaining what the language gene is.

What Is the Language Gene FOXP2 – A Neanderthal Story

Neanderthal skeleton used to find the language gene FOXP2 in it.

For many, the language gene is seen as one of the most essential genes we humans possess. Why? Because it is believed to enable us to speak, giving us the unique ability to communicate in a differentiated manner.

Some also assume that FOXP2 was the main reason for our ancestors to prevail, while our Neanderthal relatives perished. For a long time, we thought our primeval relatives did not have this gene, which presumably gave them a considerable disadvantage.

However, the findings of a recent study have refuted this presumption! And that’s not all! Not only did Neanderthals possess some form of the gene FOXP2, but it revealed that it had undergone similar developments as its human counterpart. Always good for some surprise, the homo sapiens neanderthalensis!

However, If we have it and the Neanderthals have it, too, are there more species that possess FOXP2?

Shouldn’t the Entire World Be Able to Talk?

Chimpanzee shown on picture as bearer of the language gene FOXP2.

All animals have an FOXP2 gene. The human (and Neanderthal) version(s) differ(s) at just 2 of its 740 units from that of chimpanzees. Other forms of this gene were found in birds or mice! Why are we the only ones to talk, then?

The role of the language gene FOXP2 differs based on its carrier. Simultaneously, its effect on animals shows similarities to its impact on us, humans! Don’t forget that the common ancestors of us and these animals date back several million years.

E.g., for mice, the modification of this gene led to substantial disruptions of the vocalizing and syllable sequences. For comparison, the mutations of FOXP2 caused our KE family problems with the speech rhythm and simple grammar rules.

So, this must be it! We have made it. We found the one and only language gene!

Not so fast. For some reason, we humans love dramatic historical facts. Wouldn’t this be some headline: “We finally found the language gene!” And of course, back in 2001, the media was fast to report the finding of FOXP2 (see here, e.g.). But, is it really one single gene that accounts for our speaking and communication?

One Language Gene or Several Language Genes?

Several genes shown.

The function of FOXP2 is that it binds genes and turns on other genes. Thus, we are talking about a regulator of gene function. Also, we do know for sure that it is related to language and speech. So far, so good.

However, language and speech are most probably not the result of one gene alone but the product of a multigenic interplay. This conclusion becomes evident if you consider what processes language and speech comprise: cognitive processes of memory, perception, and reasoning.

Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to keep searching for more genes related to language? Wouldn’t examinations in regard to this matter help us to shed more light on a person’s language-learning ability?

Spontaneously, I reckon that we would better understand a pupil’s struggle to learn a language. What is more, we could select the most effective learning methods based on genetic predispositions! Finally, geneticists could intend to manipulate these genes and improve our learning capacity!

I know. I know. This sounds futuristic, and my last sentence might raise ethic issues. Notwithstanding, what has science done so far since the discovery of FOXP2?

Scientific Evidence on FOXP2

Scientist experimenting.

Please don’t turn off your brains, as here is where it gets fascinating!

In a recent study of 2015, Chandrasekaran of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues tested the language learning of 214 adults. Those who bore a specific mutation of FOXP2 were found to shift faster to procedural, in other words, unconscious, implicit, or automatic, learning. This form of learning is beneficial when you learn a language, contrary to declarative learning. Declarative learning implies the acquisition of deliberate knowledge that you can express by words.

Another study was done in 2014 by C. Schreiweis and a number of colleagues. Once more, mice were the object of investigation. Indeed, mice carrying human FOXP2 managed to learn new ways to find food in a maze quicker than normal mice. What does this have to do with language learning? The mice turned conscious behavior into a routine – an ability that is vital when learning a language!

There would be more studies, but I don’t want to bore you. To conclude, FOXP2 undoubtedly plays a major role in learning a language. But, it cannot do this alone. However, research has still a long way to go to uncover the underlying genetic interplay before we might benefit noticeably from the findings in regard to language learning. Amazing. And all started with one British family!

The Language Gene FOXP2 (Quick Read) – The Growth of an Entertaining Language Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! You surely have noticed that this article took on more of a scientific approach. A bit of science is never wrong as it gives us its findings as a present. Anyway, thanks for reading!

There will be a loooooot more articles coming! 

At the moment, I am actively posting content on PinterestInstagram, and Twitter. Have a look if you just can’t get enough of “Veni. Vidi. Linguas didici!” I typically publish new articles on Mondays!

Are you asking yourself: “Who is this guy whose words I am reading right now?” You will find some information about me here.

Picture depicting ideas as balloons.
#17 QuickTip: Be creative. Always add new ways to get yourself in contact with a language. The more senses you use, the faster you advance!

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1 Comment

  • 1seekers


    February 17, 2022 at 16:55
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