18 August 2019
Brains of Chinese babies adopted at a year old responded later to the tones of Chinese in the same way as those of native speakers. Photo: AFP
Brains of Chinese babies adopted at a year old responded later to the tones of Chinese in the same way as those of native speakers. Photo: AFP

You may never lose your mother tongue

Imagine you were a baby adopted from China at the age of 12 months by a French-speaking family and were never exposed to the Chinese language again.

Which would you consider to be your mother tongue: French or Chinese?

Existing research has shown children can “lose” the language of infancy.

But a new study suggests a child’s early language won’t be erased when he or she is moved to a different language environment, The Guardian reported Thursday.

The study showed that Chinese children, adopted at 12 months by French-speaking families in Canada, responded to the tones of Chinese despite having no conscious understanding of the language.

The sample of 49 girls aged between nine and 17 in the Montreal area fell into three groups: monolingual French speakers with no exposure to Chinese, girls bilingual in French and Chinese, and the Chinese adoptees.

All were asked to listen to “pseudo words” that used tones common in Chinese languages. In MRI scans, the adoptees showed the same brain activity as native speakers of Chinese, despite no longer being able to understand and speak the language.

Emeritus Professor Fred Genesse of McGill University’s psychology department, who co-authored the report, said: “In most people, when you process language, your left hemisphere is involved. When the monolinguals are listening to these pseudo words, they’re not processing them as language. For them it just sounds like a jumble of sounds.

“When you look at the two other groups, the areas of the brain they are activating are in the left hemisphere, so they are treating these pseudo words as linguistic units, as words.”

David Stringer, associate professor of second-language studies at Indiana University, said the study challenged existing research on the impact early languages have on the brain.

“It appears to contradict the findings of similar FMRI studies, which suggested that the childhood language of adoptees may be erased from the brain as the children acquire their new language,” the newspaper quoted Stringer as saying.

A 2003 study of Korean children who were adopted by French-speaking families suggested that early languages were lost.

Alison Mackey, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, said the new findings provided evidence that early language learning is permanent and that what can look like language loss might merely be a problem of retrieval.

She said: “It’s there, but it’s not easily accessed, in other words.”

Kate Watkins, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian the study had interesting implications for those who wish to “relearn” their first languages.

“It would suggest that someone who had this very short exposure would have an advantage if they wanted to learn this language again,” she said.

“If your brain is wired up to detect these [sound] categories you are probably going to have an easier time learning the language.”

So the sounds of your babyhood never leave you. Maybe that’s why they call it the mother tongue.

Isn’t the brain a wonderful thing?

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