A new study has found that languages learned very early in life are subconsciously retained even when there is no conscious memory of the early experience remaining. The study, conducted by Radboud University, Western Sydney University, and Hanyang University was published in Royal Society Open Science and provides the first evidence that residual knowledge of the birth language by international adoptees not only helps them relearn a perceptual discrimination, but also supports more efficient speech production. Dr. Jiyoun Choi led the research.
The study states, “Children adopted early in life into another linguistic community typically forget their birth language but retain, unaware, relevant linguistic knowledge that may facilitate (re)learning of birth-language patterns. Understanding the nature of this knowledge can shed light on how language is acquired.”
The participants were 29 adoptees are Korean but speak Dutch ages 23–41 and the control group of 29 native speakers of Dutch who had not learned Korean. Most of the group was adopted as toddlers or under 6 months of age, and none of them learned Korean after adoption. The participants were asked to pronounce Korean consonants, which are different than Dutch consonants. While both groups performed at the same level before training, participants whose birth language was Korean outperformed their native Danish counterparts. The results suggest that language is learned in a much more abstract way than previously believed, and that languages heard in the womb and in the early months of life are retained into adulthood.
There have been previous studies that tackle this subject such as the study “Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language” which discovered that 10–17-year-olds adopted as infants from China whose birth language was Canadian French (yet they do not speak French at all) showed brain activity patterns like those of Chinese-French bilinguals when discriminating Chinese lexical tones, while monolingual French speakers had different activation patterns.
The suggestion that babies acquire languages in the womb and retain them through life could lead to the suggestion that parents speak to their children in the womb and to babies frequently, even though they may not understand exactly what is being said to them. Choi concluded, “Equally informative was the finding that even our youngest adoptee group showed evidence of this knowledge retention, suggesting that important and lasting cognitive abilities are being laid down even in the earliest months of life.”