How dopamine helps you to learn new languages

We live in a quickly changing world where we need to adapt to new environments on a regular basis. For example, when learning a new language. But what factors contribute to this successful learning, and what happens when we encounter challenges?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Why dopamine is important for learning

Researchers from the Donders Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging are curious to answer these questions. A potential key player has already been identified: the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is one of the most important neurotransmitters. When you think of dopamine, you might think of the euphoria of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. In fact, dopamine has little to do with pleasure. Instead, it is implicated in a variety of more cognitive brain functions, including decision-making, learning, motivation and language processing. While intermediate levels of dopamine optimize motivation and cognition, too much or too little dopamine can be problematic. For example, in schizophrenia, addiction and Parkinson’s disease this can lead to cognitive deficits, such as impairments in decision-making, memory and learning.

Learning a new language can be challenging

If you have ever tried to learn a new language, you probably noticed that this requires both studying grammar and new vocabulary and a lot of trial and error. Languages that are related to Dutch, such as German, are often easier to learn than others, such as Italian, because we can rely on our previous knowledge and apply it successfully to a new word. For example, if you know Dutch you will probably understand the German word “Eselsbrücke” (Ezelsbruggetje) or if you know English you can probably understand the Italian word “Perfetto” (Perfect).

Even though you might feel frustrated when learning a new language, you will also find it rewarding when you capture the meaning of a new word. Even if it is one word out of an entire sentence! It could be that dopamine is involved in both using previous knowledge you have of other languages, and making you feel enthusiastic when you understand that one more word. A research group at the Donders Institute is now investigating whether a low oral dose of levodopa (a dopamine precursor, so from which dopamine is synthetized), which increases brain dopamine levels, can boost these processes and which brain areas are involved.

Join as a Participant

Would you like to be part of this research? If you are a native Dutch speaker, right-handed, and are between 18-45 years old, you can! In the study, you receive levodopa or placebo, and play games while in the MRI scanner. Before and during testing we have a lot of health checks to make sure it is safe for you to participate. If you are interested in contributing to scientific research and gaining insights into the fascinating world of language acquisition, you are invited to participate in this fMRI study. You can register by emailing


Author: Annkathrin Böke & Elena Mainetto

Buddy: Viola Hollestein

Editor: Helena Olraun

Translation: Dirk-Jan Melssen

Editor translation: Eline de Boer

Featured image by Paul Hanaoka via Unsplash

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