Oxytocin and the L Word… Language That Is

The other day in my Language and Mind class, a psychology course exploring the ins and outs of linguistics and language acquisition, we watched Patricia Kuhl’s TedTalk discussing the necessary elements for English speaking American babies to learn Mandarin in a one month period.

Kuhl, a psychologist at the University of Washington, explores ways in which babies perceive and learn about the world. Her lab compared children exposed to Mandarin in three conditions: in person, by video recording, and by audio recording. The video recording and audio recording group showed almost no learning after a month consisting of 12 sessions. But the group in the in person condition showed similar level performance skills to age matched Taiwanese babies.

Kuhl’s research found that English speaking American babies with in person interactions were able to show Taiwanese levels of Mandarin comprehension on specific sounds (the top blue triangle). American babies that saw TV or heard audio recordings showed almost no learning. (Screen shot from the Kuhl’s TedTalk video).

What I find fascinating about this TedTalk is the importance of human interaction. This got my neuroscience brain thinking: What is going on in the brain for the in-person interaction that makes this outcome so drastic?

My Hypothesis: Oxytocin

It is well documented that oxytocin is the hormone of love. The pea-sized pituitary gland releases oxytocin when you snuggle or perform other types of “pair bonding” actions. Not only does this aid in pair bonding but it also plays a huge role in promoting good social interactions as well as helping avoid bad social interactions. Similarly, a 2011 review by Galbally and colleagues shows the importance of oxytocin in the formation of mother-child bonds.

The results of Kuhl’s study did not surprise me given what we know about the role of oxytocin and social interaction. These interactions in the lab were most likely very fun for the child (you can watch Kuhl’s TedTalk here) and most likely promoted strong feelings of pair bonding and therefore high levels of oxytocin release.

From here I asked another question: Does oxytocin also play a key role language learning given its link to social bonding

Preliminary research says YES!

Research conducted by Theofanopoulou, Boeckx, and Jarvis hypothesize that oxytocin plays a role in language learning. They claim that language is a social learning experience and proposed a circuitry explaining oxytocin as a mechanism for learning language.

Theofanopoulou and colleagues hypothesized oxytocinergic neurons from the hypothalamus project onto the laryngeal motor cortex (LMC) as well as the ventral striatum (VTA). From here VTA sends dopaminergic projections to the anterior striatum (ASt). This suggested circuitry shows how oxytocin can play a role in social motivation for vocal imitation, a key part of language acquisition.

Theofanopoulou and colleague’s suggested circuitry for the oxytocin’s role in language learning. The green arrows are oxytocinergic projections and the red arrows are dopaminergic projections.

Future language research should take a note out of Theofanopoulou’s book and investigate the neurotransmitters and neural circuitry involved in language processing.


Galbally, M., Lewis, A. J., Ijzendoorn, M. V., & Permezel, M. (2011). The role of oxytocin in mother-infant relations: A systematic review of human studies. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 19(1), 1-14. doi:10.3109/10673229.2011.549771

Theofanopoulou, C., Boeckx, C., & Jarvis, E. D. (2017). A hypothesis on a role of oxytocin in the social mechanisms of speech and vocal learning. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1861) doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0988

featured image: https://www.ge.com/reports/dont-you-want-me-baby-this-brain-imaging-contest-can-show-you-the-love/

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