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'Forgotten' First Language Influences How Brain Processes Sounds

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You will never forget your mother tongue, a new study found. Scientists have found that even a small exposure to a first language influences the way the brain will interpret and process sounds.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists at McGill University in Canada discovered that French-speaking children who were once exposed to Chinese language at a very young age showed bilingual brain activities in later life.

They added that even a short initial exposure to a language affects how the brain processes sounds from a second language, even if the first language has been forgotten. For their study they recruited children between the ages of 10 and 17 with different language backgrounds.

The first group included children who were monolingual, knowing only French. The next group consisted of children who know both French and Chinese, while the last group were Chinese children who had been adopted by French families before turning 3 years old and had not spoken Chinese since.

Using fMRI or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, the researchers looked at the parts of the brains of participants when they were talking. They found that in the French-speaking group, two distinct areas common to language would light up. However, in the third group, the children who did not speak Chinese anymore, the brain responded with light in sections making it consistent with bilingual processing.

"During the first year of life, as a first step in language development, infants' brains are highly tuned to collect and store information about the sounds that are relevant and important to the language they hear around them," Lara Pierce, a doctoral student at McGill and study author, said. She added that the results of the study show that children exposed to the Chinese language at a young age process French differently than those who grew up speaking only French.

The researchers hope that the findings of the study may help experts in understanding brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change or modify its own structure and function after changes within the body or external environment happen. Hence, they recommend further research in brain plasticity to develop new educational practices that will help all types of learners.

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