You Never Forget Your Mother Tongue

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You never really forget the first language you hear when you’re a baby, even if you can’t consciously recall a single word. That’s the conclusion of a new Canadian study that looked at how international adoptees process language.

The study used brain scans to compare how 48 Canadian girls responded to different sounds and tones used in Mandarin Chinese. You don’t have to speak Chinese to hear the different tones, but if you do speak the language, hearing them will make the parts of your brain that process language “light up” on a scan.  If you don’t speak Chinese, the tones are perceived as ordinary sounds.

Researchers divided the children into three groups.  One group consisted of monolingual French speakers. The second group was raised in bilingual households speaking both Chinese and French. The third group consisted of Chinese children who had been adopted into monolingual French-speaking families at around a year old, too young to consciously remember how to speak Mandarin. Even though the third group of children couldn’t speak Chinese, their brains still processed Chinese tones in the same way as the bilingual childrens’ did.

Study author Dr. Denise Klein told Time Magazine that the study was designed to see how the brain responds to language in the first year or so of life:

We looked at language that was abruptly cut off, so we could see what happens developmentally in that early period. The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.”

The researchers predict that children exposed to a language in infancy  will have an easier time learning the language later on in life, but more study is needed to see whether or not that’s true.

The study raises other interesting questions, as well.  For example, what type of language exposure is necessary to impact a baby’s brain like this? Will foreign language CDs do the trick, or is the baby honing in on the language of its primary caregivers?  What do you think?

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by LisaW123