The first language that an infant is exposed to at birth is retained in their brain and can be recognized year’s later, a new study suggests.
Even if a child no longer speaks the language they were first exposed to when they were born, their brain may remember that language, according to a study by researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology and Montreal’s Neurological Institute and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS.)
The researchers looked into understanding how the brain learns language and found that when a baby hears a language from birth, that language creates neural patterns that the brain can retain for years, showing the first evidence of “lost” languages in the brain.
The study involved participants from an international adoption community in Montreal, Canada, including 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17 years old. There were three groups in total, the first were born and raised speaking only French; the second group was bilingual and spoke both French and Chinese fluently; the third and final group consisted of Chinese-speaking children who were adopted as infants and later became French speakers, but discontinued exposure to Chinese after the first few years of life.
All of the groups were asked to perform a Chinese tonal task and the researchers took scans of their brains during the task and studied the images. The scans showed evidence that the third group who were adopted and had discontinued their exposure to the Chinese language had the same brain activation patterns as those who continued speaking Chinese since birth.
This data has led the researchers to believe that the neural pathways for the Chinese language could be acquired during the first months of life and retained even if the child may no longer speak understands the language.