Language. It’s so interesting, and so ingrained in us even before we’re born. We hear and start to acclimate while still in the womb, but what happens when we’re born into one culture and then find ourselves adopted into another (different language included)?
Well, a lengthy Canadian study set out to discover exactly that, using a group of Chinese children who were adopted before they learned to speak – so they went from hearing Chinese to hearing French on a daily basis during their formative years. Their exposure to Chinese had been minimal and, at 9-17 years of age (obviously), they no longer had any conscious recollection of their original language.
Lara Pierce was the study’s first author, and she explained the rationale behind their choices:
“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.”
In order to control the study, the scientists compared the adopted French-speaking girls to bilingual girls who spoke both Chinese and French, as well as another group of girls who had been born and raised only hearing/speaking French.
Each participant listened to fragments of Chinese while an MRI scanned their brains, and the results were pretty surprising: the brains of the adopted children showed exactly the same pattern of activation as those who were native Chinese speakers.
It should be noted that the Chinese language depends on tone to interpret the actual meaning of words as opposed to just lending subtext (as it does in English and French). This is important, because while native French and English speakers show sensitivity to tone in their right superior temporal lobe, the girls who were adopted showed it in their left – the same place where it shows up in native Chinese speakers.
So, the conclusion? If your child was exposed to a different language, even before they learned to speak, they may be able to more easily learn that language later, even if they have no recollection of knowing it previously. The neural pathways are in place, and there’s no indication they can/will be unlaid.
“The similarity between adoptees and Chinese speakers clearly illustrates that early acquired information is maintained in the brain and that early experiences unconsciously influence neural processing for years, if not indefinitely.”