Neural Research Shows Children Remember Lost Languages


New research suggests that a mother’s native language is always locked away inside a child’s brain even when children grow up in a different culture.

New neural evidence suggests that even if a child grows up speaking a different language from the first language they hear, while they may not physically remember their native language, it is imprinted on their brains.

The study, created in partnership by scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and Neuro and McGill University’s Department of Psychology, looked at the brains of 48 children.  It is the first study to use brain imaging techniques to view the effects of lost languages.

‘The infant brain forms representations of language sounds, but we wanted to see whether the brain maintains these representations later in life even if the person is no longer exposed to the language,’ says Lara Pierce, a doctoral candidate at McGill University and first author on the paper.

MRI scans of 48 girls between the ages of 9 and 17 years old were collected and analyzed.  The girls were recruited through the Department of Psychology in Montreal.

While one group had been born and raised by French-speaking families, the second group were Chinese-born children who had been adopted into a French family and did not remember the Chinese language.  A third group was fluent in both Chinese and French.

Scans were taken while all three groups listened to Chinese language sounds.

The brains of both adopted girls and the girls fluent in Chinese showed the same result pattern, revealing an activation in the area of the brain that processes languages as they listened to the language sounds.  This happened even though the adopted girls had no memory of of having spoken the language, nor could they understand or speak it while listening to the tapes.

Meanwhile, the French-speaking girls activated a completely separate area of the brain while listening to the tapes.  Their brains did not treat the sounds as being from a different language, yet the adopted girls’ brains did.

“It astounded us that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who ‘lost’ or totally discontinued the language matched the one for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth. The neural representations supporting this pattern could only have been acquired during the first months of life,” said Lara Pierce from McGill University in Quebec, lead author of the paper.

Findings suggest that information learned at an early age is not only left imprinted on the brain, but also that the information may unconsciously influence brain activity for years afterward, possibly even for life.

The information may provide an argument in the area of language acquisition and other domains that have operated on beliefs that neural representations are lost from the brain over time.

More research is still needed to determine whether or not these lost languages are tied to the ability to learn other languages later in life.

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