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Lost Languages in the Brain

November 24, 2014

When children are adopted internationally, the first language they hear as babies may not be entirely lost.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Retrieving hidden languages. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Children who are adopted internationally begin their lives hearing one language, but often grow up speaking a different one. But the first language might not be entirely lost, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. McGill University researchers Lara Pierce, Denise Klein and their colleagues had girls listen to Chinese sounds while in a brain scanner. They compared French speaking girls who had been adopted from China as young children to Chinese-French bilinguals and to girls who spoke only French. Klein says in Chinese, similar sounds can mean different things depending on their pitch.

DENISE KLEIN (McGill University):

The French-only individuals processed these tones like a pitch changes.

HIRSHON:

But she says both bilinguals and the adoptees activated regions of the brain important for language processing. This suggests that early experiences with a language can’t easily be overwritten. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.