The Brain

Adults Retain Understanding Of Their Birth Language, Even If They Have Never Spoken It

Babies are soaking up knowledge of the language being spoken around them even during the first few months of being born. A new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, has found that adults who were adopted as babies from South Korea and raised in the Netherlands out-performed those who had never been to the Asian country in a South Korean language test, despite having never been back themselves.

The researchers compared those who had been adopted as babies from South Korea to those who had never been exposed to the language, by seeing how well they pronounced South Korean consonants as judged by native speakers. At the beginning, before any language training, both groups performed equally in their abilities, but what surprised the researchers was how this changed after both groups were given a little tutoring.

They found that those who had been adopted from South Korea were far more proficient at pronouncing the consonants. To add to this, they discovered that the age at which the children were adopted didn’t seem to make much of a difference either.

“One of the most interesting findings was that no difference showed in the learning results of those Korean-born participants adopted under six months of age and those adopted after the age of seventeen months,” explains co-author Mirjam Broersma in a statement. “This means that even in the very early months of life, useful language knowledge is laid down, and what has been retained about the birth language is abstract knowledge about what patterns are possible, not, for instance, words.”

It shows that even if someone who was adopted from their birth country early in life thinks they no longer retain knowledge of their birth language, they are still in fact at an advantage to people who have never been to that country.

It also demonstrates just how much children and babies are picking up language skills. The results imply that language is retained as a more abstract concept, and that the learning process begins very early in life, within just the first few months. The researchers suggest that parents should be talking to their babies as much as possible, even if it seems silly, as they are still absorbing and digesting what is being said.

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