How our brains never forget 'lost' heritage languages

Languages7 January 20153.4k

Scientists and psychologists are regularly making fascinating new discoveries about languages and an especially interesting one recently focused on 'lost' mother tongues.

In fact, it was found that those of infants create neural patterns that can be recognised in the brain years after they stop using them – suggesting no language is ever really lost after all.

The study was carried out by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and McGill University in Canada and involved functional MRI scans of 48 girls between nine and 17 years old.

All were recruited from the Montreal area, but the first group was born and raised in a family that spoke only French, while the second were from Chinese-speaking families at birth but were adopted and later spoke only French, with no apparent recollection of the Chinese.

Finally, the third group was fluent in both Chinese and French, the study authors reported in the journal PNAS.

All three groups were asked to listen to Chinese language sounds while their brains were scanned, whereupon researchers analysed the results for patterns in activity.

It was found that the brain activation for the children who were assumed to have lost their Chinese was the same as that of the youngsters who had been speaking Chinese since birth. This suggests that the languages babies hear is not lost if they move away from the nation of their mother tongue, but actually carries on for years afterwards and could even continue for life.

"The neural representations supporting this pattern could only have been acquired during the first months of life," insisted first author Lara Pierce.

Potentially, it could mean that adopted children and others in a similar position are able to re-learn languages that they acquired early on but thought they had forgotten, something that might be valuable in our global village.

The news may also explain numerous examples of anecdotal evidence in which people have apparently spoken their mother tongue while sleepwalking, despite not being able to remember any of it while they are awake – perhaps the key to unlocking it again is in the subconscious.

Recent research from the University of Cambridge showed that language extinction is being driven by small number of speakers, small geographical habitat range and population change, so the Canadian research might even be important in ensuring the continuation of some of the most at-risk tongues. 

Unfortunately, the key to re-leaning apparently forgotten languages hasn't been unveiled yet, so your business will need to continue using translation services in the meantime. Why not check out EQHO, which boasts native speakers as well as localization services?


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