Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Language Learned in Childhood Not Lost

From Scientific American, hope for adults who want to re-learn a language previously learned -- but forgotten -- in childhood:
What happens when a language learned as a child is forgotten over time? Many adoptees and emigrants have no conscious memory of their native tongue, but a new study suggests at least some information remains in the brain. A team from the University of Bristol in England showed that English-speaking adults older than 40 who had spoken Hindi or Zulu as children were able to relearn subtle sound contrasts in these languages, but adults who had never spoken the languages could not—even though the childhood speakers had no explicit memory of the languages. Because memories are neuronal connections that get reinforced with regular access, the finding means that even connections that have not been reaccessed for decades do not disappear completely, as previous evidence had suggested.

7 comments:

Wendy said...

I agree. M was two at adoption and speaking two languages. She lost them completely and is learning on of the two again--her Chinese teachers tell us she has no accent and hears the tones easily. I know some of her peers have more issues with repeating the sounds, but they were adopted much younger and were never really speakers of the language. As for Cantonese, she hears all of the tones, those I have met who are non-native speakers have a very hard time hearing all of the tones, I know I sure do (I hear them with Mandarin since there are only four) and I typically do well with language learning. My husband has a very hard time with both, I wonder if this is because he was exposed to English only until adulthood vs my background of living in a very diverse environment, hearing multiple languages as a small child. Interesting.

Von said...

Very good news, so important they have the chance.

Anonymous said...

I have been hoping that was the case! I also hope the exposure to the Chinese language at Chinese school will facilitate language learning later if they decide to take classes in the future. I think that there will be a gap between now and then when they won't be learning Chinese. They will forget, but I hope whatever they forget will come back quickly when they pick it up again.

Elaine said...

Interesting. My partner has been struggling for the past 3 years to re-learn one of his first languages - Indonesian. He's done okay, but I don't see him doing inherently better than I am at the language. Our 4 year old, on the other hand, speaks without accent and understands completely, both Indonesian and English.

travelmom and more said...

From what I understand by the time a child is about 18 months they quit hearing some sounds they were able to detect as infants. One example I can think of is the difference between L and R for a person who is learning English. I am not sure that a young child who looses his or her language will be able to access all of his or her language as an adult, but many of the subtle differences in inflection, tone, and pronunciation may be able to be accessed. That said most young children who learn a second language can learn it with a native speakers accent. There is a lot of research out there about this topic.

Sang-Shil said...

I think this article, and some of the comments on this post, are an excellent argument for why adoptive parents should strongly encourage language instruction in their children while they are young. I know the "critical period" hypothesis applied to second language acquisition is somewhat controversial, but it certainly seems to be true for at least some adoptees.

That said, I also know adult adoptees who came to the U.S. when they were between 7-10 years old and spoke only Korean, but who have now completely lost the ability to say or understand anything. In some cases, they even retained a Korean accent but no memory of Korean, and are struggling as much as I am to (re)learn it as an adult. I was also surprised (and saddened) to see how quickly Faith's Mandarin fluency eroded in the film "Wo Ai Ni Mommy"; I think she was home less than a year but was struggling mightily to communicate with her foster family in China.

All of which goes to show how complicated -- and important -- this language stuff is!

SustainableFamilies said...

I hope this is really true!