Finding ‘lost’ languages in the brain: Far-reaching implications for unconscious role of infant experiences

Credit: Image courtesy of McGill University

An infant’s mother tongue creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later, even if the child totally stops using the language, as can happen in cases of international adoption, according to a new joint study. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of the “lost” language remain in the brain.

An infant’s mother tongue creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later even if the child totally stops using the language, (as can happen in cases of international adoption) according to a new joint study by scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro and McGill University’s Department of Psychology. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of the “lost” language remain in the brain.

“The infant brain forms representations of language sounds, but we wanted to see whether the brain maintains these representations later in life even if the person is no longer exposed to the language,” says Lara Pierce, a doctoral candidate at McGill University and first author on the paper. Her work is jointly supervised by Dr. Denise Klein at The Neuro and Dr. Fred Genesee in the Department of Psychology. The article, “Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language,” is in the November 17 edition of scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The Neuro conducted and analyzed functional MRI scans of 48 girls between nine and 17 years old who were recruited from the Montreal area through the Department of Psychology. One group was born and raised unilingual in a French-speaking family. The second group had Chinese-speaking children adopted as infants who later became unilingual French speaking with no conscious recollection of Chinese. The third group were fluently bilingual in Chinese and French.

Scans were taken while the three groups listened to the same Chinese language sounds.

“It astounded us that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who ‘lost’ or totally discontinued the language matched the one for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth. The neural representations supporting this pattern could only have been acquired during the first months of life,” says Ms. Pierce. “This pattern completely differed from the first group of unilingual French speakers.”

The study suggests that early-acquired information is not only maintained in the brain, but unconsciously influences brain processing for years, perhaps for life — potentially indicating a special status for information acquired during optimal periods of development. This could counter arguments not only within the field of language acquisition, but across domains, that neural representations are overwritten or lost from the brain over time.

The implications of this finding are far reaching, and open the door for questions relating both to the re-learning of an early acquired, but forgotten, language or skill, as well as the unconscious influence of early experiences on later developmental outcomes.

The study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de recherche sur la société et la culture, the G.W. Stairs Foundation and the Centre for Research on Brain Language and Mind.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by McGill University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Lara J. Pierce, Denise Klein, Jen-Kai Chen, Audrey Delcenserie, and Fred Genesee. Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language.PNAS, November 17, 2014 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1409411111

Cite This Page:

McGill University. “Finding ‘lost’ languages in the brain: Far-reaching implications for unconscious role of infant experiences.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 November 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Finding ‘lost’ languages in the brain: Far-reaching implications for unconscious role of infant experiences

  1. lorieb Reply

    very interesting! When my 20 year old nephew had a stroke last year, he regained his speech and knowledge bit by bit. Although he could not count to ten in english (his mother tongue) he could in spanish (he lives in Texas and had learned that in kindergarten) I found that quite amazing!!

    • Ellice Campbell Post authorReply

      It is so fascinating how the brain works! I was really surprised when my sons speech pathologist told me the speech disorder he suffers from is less common in children and most often found in people that have had a stroke, basically they can understand everything but when they want to speak despite knowing how they would like to respond they can’t always correctly form the words. I am glad to hear your nephew recovered, it must have been so scary suffering from a stroke at such a young age!

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