JAN 07, 2016 4:48 AM PST

You Never Forget Your First Language

While it might be difficult to actively recall and remember events that happened when you were very young, as it turns out the brain never forgets. A new study from McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute tested this phenomenon on language acquisition. How language is learned, how it’s retained and even what effect a language learned while in early childhood will have on how your brain processes language later in life.
Children retain their first language even if they stop speaking it

Studies have long demonstrated that it’s easier for a very young child to learn a new language than it is for a teenager or adult. In childhood, brain development is uniquely suited to learning new skills. Children are also less afraid of making a mistake or being embarrassed and naturally want to try new things.
 
The study conducted in Montreal is especially significant because it isn’t just another study on how the human brain learns a language and develops speech and understanding. It also shows how later in life, the building blocks of language acquistition in the brain change and adapt to new learning. It demonstrates the plasticity of the brain, an important area in neuroscience research.
 
The study used nonsense words to test children aged 10-17. There were three groups of children, the first group had been raised speaking only French. The second group were children adopted from China before the age of three, but raised in a family speaking only French. The third group consisted of children who were fluent in both French and Chinese. The children were asked to respond to a word that sounded French, but was not a word at all. During this task they were undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that showed which parts of their brains were engaged.
 
All of the participants did equally well on pronouncing and reading the words, but the areas of the brain that were used differed among the groups. In the children who spoke only French and had no exposure to Chinese or other languages, the left inferior frontal gyrus and the anterior insula were activated on the scans, which is expected since those areas of the brain process language and speech.
 
However both the children who had been exposed to Chinese but stopped speaking it and those who spoke both Chinese and French fluently had more areas of the brain active during the scan and those areas were very similar in both groups, including the the right middle frontal gyrus, left medial frontal cortex, and bilateral superior temporal gyrus.

In a press release from the university, Lara Pierce a doctoral student at McGill and the study’s first author said, “During the first year of life, as a first step in language development, infants' brains are highly tuned to collect and store information about the sounds that are relevant and important to the language they hear around them. What we discovered when we tested the children who had  been adopted into French-language families and no longer spoke Chinese, was that, like children who were bilingual, the areas of the brain known to be involved in working memory and general attention were activated when they were asked to perform tests involving language. These results suggest that children exposed to Chinese as infants process French in a different manner to monolingual French children.” 
 
The video below talks more about the study and what it could mean for research into how the brain acquires and retains language.
 
 
 
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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