If the tiny finger-shaped Heschl's Gyrus on the left side of your brain has more gray matter than average, you may be well equipped to learn Chinese or other tonal languages -- that's what the team led by Patrick C.M.Wong has been working on at Northwestern's Institute for Neuroscience (abstract here, NU press release here).
Seventeen research participants aged 18-26 "were trained to learn six one-syllable sounds (pesh, dree, ner, vece, nuck and fute). ...The participants were repeatedly shown the 18 'pseudo' words and a black-and-white picture representing each word’s meaning. Pesh, for example, at one pitch meant 'glass,' at another pitch meant 'pencil' and at a third meant 'table.' Dree, depending upon pitch, meant 'arm,' 'cow' or 'telephone.'
"As a group -- and sometimes in fewer than two or three sessions -- the nine participants predicted on the basis of left HG size to be 'more successful learners' achieved an average of 97 percent accuracy in identifying the pseudo words. The 'less successful' participants averaged 63 percent accuracy and sometimes required as many as 18 training sessions to correctly identify the words."
That could be a big difference if you're trying to keep up in a fast-paced class. The authors aren't falling into the old biology-is-destiny trap, either. An undersize Heschl's Gyrus may not keep you from being an ace translator. Says Wong, “We are already testing different learning strategies for participants whom we predict will be less successful to see if altering the training paradigm results in more successful learning.”
In the end, it may just mean that your grandchildren will be funneled into different sections of Mandarin according to the results of their pre-enrollment brain scans.