A joint study by scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – The Neuro and McGill University’s Department of Psychology seems to show that languages learned during early childhood leave traceable patterns in the brain. Even if the child stops using its first language and replaces it with a new one, which is often the case in international adoptions, the unconscious brain retains those patterns years later.
“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.
For the study The Neuro conducted and analyzed functional MRI scans of 48 girls between nine and 17 years old. The girls were divided in three groups. One group was born and raised only speaking French. In the second group were girls born in China who were adopted and raised speaking only French with no conscious recollection of their Chinese language roots. The third group were bilingual in French and Chinese.
The brain scans were taken while the girls listened to Chinese language sounds. While the monolingual French girls only showed activity in one part of the brain, the bilingual girls and those who were adopted showed activity in two regions of the brain leading to the conclusion that those patterns could only have been acquired during the first months of life.
The results could suggest a special status for information that is acquired during the early stages of life which would make it an ideal period for learning.