First Language Wires Brain for Later Language-Learning; Results Point to Unique and Lasting Influence of Early Language Experience on Later Brain Organization

You may believe that you have forgotten the Chinese you spoke as a child, but your brain hasn’t. Moreover, that “forgotten” first language may well influence what goes on in your brain when you speak English or French today. In an open-access article published online today (December 1, 2015) in Nature Communications, researchers from McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada describe their discovery that even brief, early exposure to a language influences how the brain processes sounds from a second language later in life--even when the first language learned is no longer spoken. It is an important finding because this research tells scientists both about how the brain becomes wired for language, and also about how that hardwiring can change and adapt over time in response to new language environments. The research has implications for our understanding of how brain plasticity functions, and may also be important information about creating educational practices geared to different types of learners. The article is titled “Past Experience Shapes Ongoing Neural Patterns for Language.” In the new study, researchers asked three groups of children (aged 10 - 17) with very different linguistic backgrounds to perform a task that involved identifying French pseudo-words (such as vapagne and chansette). One group consisted of children born and raised in unilingual French-speaking families. The second group consisted of children adopted from China into a French-speaking family before age three, who stopped speaking Chinese at that time, and from that point on heard and used only French. The third group consisted of children fluently bilingual in Chinese and French.
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