Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 June 2020

Do left-handed people really learn new languages easier?

An Oxford University study suggests left-handed people find it easier to speak different languages
Nine-year-old Ayaan Khan, who is left-handed, works on his Arabic studies homework in Abu Dhabi in 2016. Delores Johnson / The National

A new study suggests that left-handed people are better at verbal tasks, such as learning new languages, because of how they grow in the womb.

The research, conducted by Oxford University and published this week, detailed how scientists had unlocked the genetics hardwired into human DNA that caused people to be left-handed.

Left-handed people’s brains communicate with each other in a more coordinated way, giving them an advantage when it came to being able to speak different languages.

“We discovered that, in left-handed participants, the language areas of the left and right sides of the brain communicate with each other in a more coordinated way,” said Dr Akira Wiberg, a Medical Research Council fellow at the University of Oxford, who carried out the research.

At school I was the only one in the class who was able to speak fluent English on school trips when I was 15

Katidja Choudjay, left-handed Dubai resident

“This raises the intriguing possibility for future research that left-handers might have an advantage when it comes to performing verbal tasks, but it must be remembered that these differences were only seen as averages over very large numbers of people and not all left-handers will be similar.”

In a multi-lingual society like the UAE switching between languages is a daily part of life for many.

The National spoke to a number of lefties living in the Emirates who speak multiple languages.

Katidja Choudjay, 45, from France, was the first to speak English with fluency in her school class. She later studied German.

“Learning English came easily to me from a very young age," she said.

“At school I was the only one in the class who was able to speak fluent English on school trips when I was 15.”

But the 45-year-old, who works for a catering company in Dubai, was not necessarily convinced by the findings.

“It might just have been because I worked harder at school than the others,” she said.

Learning a language has become more accessible with the rise of e-learning. Alamy

The study was based on the analysis of the genes of 400,000 participants, including more than 38,000 people who were left-handed.

Four genetic regions, discovered in the study, could be the reason why left-handers were seen as being more adept at learning languages and verbal tasks than their right-handed counterparts.

Vijay Iyer, another left-handed Dubai resident, was able to speak three languages by the age of six.

“I don’t know if being left-handed made much of a difference in that regard though,” said the 39-year-old, a construction industry manager from India.

Just because the right and left parts of the brain are organised differently it doesn’t mean there is a difference in how people learn a language

Benjamin Lang, New York University Abu Dhabi

“My wife is right-handed and she actually speaks more languages than me.”

Growing up left-handed came with advantages and disadvantages.

“I was made to write with my right hand at school in India,” he said.

“It was because the teacher didn’t want our elbows moving in different directions on the desks and hitting off each other.

“However, it was an advantage playing sports growing up because being left handed would often throw off an opponent, especially in cricket or badminton.”

It is estimated that one in 10 people are left-handed, but some cultures have been wary of the preference in the past. Sinister is the Latin word for being left-handed, while there are numerous other examples of negative connotations of being left handed across the globe.

The French word for left is gauche, this also doubles up as a definition for being clumsy or graceless. In the Irish language, the word ciotóg is most commonly used to describe someone who is left handed, however, another meaning is someone who is clumsy.

Linguistic experts were also sceptical about the connection between the hand that a person wrote with and their ability to learn a language.

“Left-handed people tend to be more creative and intuitive, whereas the right handed are associated with analysis and rational thought," said Khalid Boudemagh, partner at the Golden Age Language Institute in Dubai.

“Learning a language is very much like learning a science with a strict set of rules so, if anything, it should benefit people with more analytical minds.”

Benjamin Lang, research assistant at the neuroscience of language laboratory at New York University Abu Dhabi, also was surprised by the findings.

“Just because the right and left parts of the brain are organised differently it doesn’t mean there is a difference in how people learn a language,” he said.

Updated: September 8, 2019 05:35 PM

Famous left-handers

- Marie Curie

- Jimi Hendrix

- Leonardo Di Vinci

- David Bowie

- Paul McCartney

- Albert Einstein

- Jack the Ripper

- Barack Obama

- Helen Keller

- Joan of Arc