“Your Brain Remembers Languages You Think You Forgot”

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The Story

“Your Brain Remembers Languages You Think You Forgot”
by Jane C. Hu
Scientific American, May 1, 2017

The Pitch

Hi Robin,

I heard you’re looking for Advances stories for your April/May issue. Here’s a breakthrough in psychology & linguistics:

You may not remember your birth language, but your brain does

With growing interest in bilingual education, everyone wants to know exactly what kind of early language experiences children need to learn a second language. Now, a surprising new study suggests that a little exposure can go a long way: we unconsciously retain bits of the language we hear in our earliest years. This is true even if we can no longer speak or understand the language — and it appears that knowledge helps speed the learning process if we try to pick up that language again as adults.

The study trained Dutch adults to listen for sound contrasts in Korean. Some of these adults had no prior exposure to Korean; others were born in Korea and adopted by Dutch families before the age of 6. While all participants reported that they couldn’t speak or understand their native tongue, the Korean adoptees showed an improved ability to hear and speak Korean sounds.

Happy to provide additional details and answer any questions you have about this story. A bit about me: I have a PhD in developmental psychology, and I’ve written about the latest in psychology and neuroscience research for publications like Slate, Nautilus, and Quartz. You can also find clips on my website.


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