How Our Brains Remember Languages We Think We Forgot

Study finds early exposure to language fosters better retention later in life.

May 14, 2017 5:00 am

A recent study published in Royal Society Open Science suggests that our brains retain languages learned (or even heard) as children for long periods of time, even if we lose fluency or comprehension of those languages.

Per Scientific AmericanDutch adults, some of whom were born in Korea and adopted by Dutch families as children, were asked to listen to sound contrasts in Korean. Even though none of the participants spoke Korean, the Korean adoptees were better able to distinguish contrasts in the language and pronounce Korean sounds.

Similarly, the researchers compared the native language skills of subjects adopted at six months old to subjects adopted at 17 months and found no differences in their fluency or comprehension levels.

Hanyang University postdoctoral fellow Jiyoun Choi led the study, and summarized her findings by saying that “language learning can be retained subconsciously, even if conscious memories of the language do not exist.” University of British Columbia psychology professor Janet Werker shared Choi’s enthusiasm, saying that “it’s exciting that these effects are seen even among adults who were exposed to Korean only up to six months of age—an age before which babbling emerges.

Click here to read Choi and her team’s paper.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.