You might forget a language – but your brain won’t!
If you were adopted from another country as a child, chances are you don’t remember the language you were first exposed to. Instead, when you arrived with your parents in your new country, you started to learn their language, and in no time this language became your only verbal form of communication. To this day, you speak just like every other kid who grew up in your country. Right? Wrong! As a new study in Nature shows, your forgotten first language is probably still influencing you right this moment. Sérieux?!
Yes, seriously. The scientists built on a previous finding that adopted children from China, who had discontinued Chinese as young children and become monolingual in French, showed similar brain activation patterns to Chinese speakers when presented with a unique Chinese sound1. Crucially, the monolingual French control group, who’d never spoken a different language, didn’t match this pattern. Intrigued by this result, they investigated further and found that when speaking French, the adoptees (who considered French their only language!) showed a brain activation pattern more resembling that of Chinese-French bilinguals than those of the French-only speakers, by ‘recruiting’ more of their brain areas. These two findings together seem to suggest that strong neural connections are made when a person acquires their first language, and these influence the acquisition of the second language.
It is still unclear exactly why bilinguals, who speak both languages to a native standard, and international adoptees need to recruit more brain areas when speaking their second language. It has however been suggested that it might explain why bilinguals seem to benefit from certain cognitive advantages2. In any case, it can only be considered poetic that the first words you ever heard will forever be with you, as a blueprint in your brain.
Edited by Debbie Nicol