Adopted children. Yes, native language does leave a trace

December 16, 2014 3:15 pm

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Ever wondered if adoptees still remember their native languages? Will be easier for them to relearn their native language? Researchers at McGill University and University of Montreal took a deep look into the brains of adult adoptees and tried to answer these questions.

As you know, children learn the phonology of their birth language at a very early age: within months the infant’s perceptual system becomes attuned to those speech sounds that can make a meaningful difference as opposed to those that do not. For example, in English the difference between “l” and “r” is phonemic, meaning that the words “road” and “load” mean different things, and English infants will quickly come to discriminate these sounds. Other languages, instead, work in a totally different way. Chinese, to be more specific, uses the intonation contour of the syllable for meaning-making.

So here is what the researchers did: they tested 48 Chinese adoptees in Montreal who were adopted around 10 years ago, before they were two years old and who now only speak French, and compared them with both monolingual Francophone Canadian children and with French-Chinese bilingual children. They made them listen to nonsense syllables that were pronounced with different intonation contours as well as to humming with the same intonation pattern.

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What they came up with is surprisingly fascinating. Under these conditions, while no actual linguistic processing was going on, brain scans revealed that the adopted children seemed to recruit the same brain regions to process the intonational patterns as did the Chinese-French bilinguals, areas that are typically associated with the processing of tonal languages. Meanwhile, the monolingual French children showed an entirely different pattern of neurological activation.

This suggests that the early adoptees retain the knowledge that intonation patterns can be used to distinguish lexical meanings.

Surely it is not possible yet to state whether it would be easier for adoptees to relearn their native language, but still. The fact that their brains at least recognised Chinese provided some interesting insight into the importance of language learning during the first year of life.

Here you can fine an article from CBC News that gets very deep into this research. Take a look.

By Sabina Grixoni

Editor and Social Media Strategist

Communication Trainee at TermCoord

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