Not Truly Lost.

Emily Chung has a CBC story reporting on an interesting discovery:

You may not recall any memories from the first year of life, but if you were exposed to a different language at the time, your brain will still respond to it at some level, a new study suggests.

Brain scans show that children adopted from China as babies into families that don’t speak Chinese still unconsciously recognize Chinese sounds as language more than a decade later.

“It was amazing to see evidence that such an early experience continued to have a lasting effect,” said Lara Pierce, lead author of the study published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in an email to CBC News.

The adopted children, who were raised in French-speaking Quebec families, had no conscious memory of hearing Chinese.

“If you actually test these people in Chinese, they don’t actually know it,” said Denise Klein, a researcher at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute who co-authored the paper.

But their brains responded to Chinese language sounds the same way as those of bilingual children raised in Chinese-speaking families.

Only a preliminary study, but certainly suggestive. (Thanks, Kobi!)


  1. People never actually forget anything. Our brains don’t work like that.

    We just can’t remember something, which is a different thing from forgetting, but deep in our brain, the information is lying there somewhere.

    Here is an appropriate quote from famous Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb:

    “The painter Philip de László moved to England in his youth and lived there till the end of his life. He married a distinguished English lady. He didn’t really seek the company of his compatriots… neither his wife nor his three sons ever learned Hungarian. Whenever he invited over any of his artist colleagues in London, such as our sculptor Mr. Strobl, he immediately apologized: he would speak English because he had completely forgotten his native tongue.
    One night, however, our Mr. Strobl was woken up by the knock of an elegant valet. Mrs. de László was summoning him, for her husband had suddenly taken ill and kept speaking in some unknown language; in vain he had been addressed in English, but still wouldn’t answer. The master sculptor hurried there but, unfortunately, arrived too late.
    His old friend wasn’t able to speak any more, not even in his native tongue, to which he found his way back after so many decades, in the hour of his death.”

  2. Stefan Holm says:

    This is a growing problem in Sweden. During the 1950s and 1960s the first wave of immigrants arrived here. They came from Finland, at the time suffering from unemployment and poverty. They were more than welcome since Sweden at the time faced the opposite problem, shortage of labour power.

    Most (not all though) of them became L2 speakers of Swedish and are today an aging minority group. Among those of them suffering from dementia etc. and in need of institutional care it’s a common phenomenon that they totally loose their comprehension of Swedish but remember the Finnish of their childhood and youth.

    As time went by Finland’s economy quickly got better so the emigration to Sweden practically stopped around 1970. As a result there is a lack of younger people understanding Finnish in modern society and this is a source of real trouble in taking care of those disabled elderly. Even their own sons and daughters are often poor speakers of Finnish. During the decades to come we will probably meet the same difficulties concerning Spanish, Greek, Iranian, Serbo-Croatian, Arabic, Somali etc.

  3. The situation described by Stefan Holm can be doubly challenging, because many of the immigrants have as an L1 a dialect which differs quite sharply from the official language of their land of origin. My grandparents were born in the Netherlands and, some years after they had immigrated, they were once asked by a doctor of their acquaintance to interpret for an elderly Dutch-born patient who had reverted to speaking “Dutch” only. They agreed to do so…and the doctor in question was floored when my grandparents told him that they couldn’t help: the patient in question was speaking a Dutch dialect which neither of them (each of my grandparents spoke a different Dutch dialect as an L1) could understand.

  4. Stefan Holm says:

    Etienne: Turn on your sense of humour. How many dialects can there be in that flat little area of the Netherlands?

    Now you can turn off your sense of humour. The Dutch are about as many in number as the Scandinavians together. So of course there are dialects. One could however wonder, how this has been coped with in the immigrant country par preference, the United States? Today it might not be a real problem, since the speakers of Spanish are arriving all the time. But in the old days? Maybe noone cared? Or maybe it was expected to be a private, family issue?

  5. This is pretty much a nonsense story and unfortunately its connection to neuroscience just makes people stop questioning the basic premise. This has nothing to do with forgetting or remembering a language. It’s purely the type of processing when people are exposed to certain sound types. They are NOT remembering Chinese! They cannot even identify the individual phonemes. If these results stand up to replication (a big if!), we still won’t know what it is that causes them. It’s not at all clear, these people would find it any easier to learn Chinese as L2 later. They never acquired any sort of active competence in Chinese. For all we know, this is no more than recollection of childhood scents and sounds and says nothing about language at all.

  6. I’m mildly surprised at the attention this has gotten. The infant brain recognizes a wide variety of sounds, but then specializes to recognize the sounds of the language spoken around her. That specialization may make it difficult to impossible to distinguish sounds that are not distinguished in the language used by the early caretakers. Once the brain has specialized, it’s usually not going to forget. This has been well known for a long time, probably multiple decades. This study seems to be verifying a well known fact.

  7. Becker’s Law: For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert on the other side.

    Le Guin’s Law: Infinite are the arguments of mages….

  8. David Marjanović says:

    For all we know, this is no more than recollection of childhood scents and sounds and says nothing about language at all.

    I agree.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Maurice Bowra, whom I knew (slightly) as he was Warden of my college, was born in China and lived there until he was 5. He later said that at that age he could speak and understand Chinese, but that after leaving China he completely forgot how to speak it. However, until the end of his life he had no difficulty in recognizing and distinguishing between the phonemes of Chinese.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    My dad was born in Budapest and lived there till he was 5. The next 2 or 3 languages he learned lack phonemic vowel length*, unlike Hungarian (where even hexameter has caught on). He has massive trouble with the concept of vowel length today.

    *…except the first of them, where it’s however part of the pitch-accent system.

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