Offering further proof of the impressionable nature of the newborn brain, researchers studying the influence of early language have discovered a life-long impact.
In a paper published this week in Nature Communications, scientists from McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute explain how even brief exposure to language permanently wires how our brains process sounds and second languages later in life. So even if you can't remember a lick of the French your parents spoke to you as a newborn, that brief exposure to the dialect makes your brain's handling of a second language different from someone who has spoken or heard only one language.
The researchers studied three groups of children aged between 10 and 17 with varying linguistic backgrounds. The first group was composed of monolingual French speakers; the second, bilingual Chinese and French speakers; and finally a third group of Chinese children adopted by French parents who no longer spoke Chinese.
Using an MRI, the researchers were able to witness which parts of a participant's brain lit up when speaking. For the monolingual group, two areas common to language were active. For the two bilingual groups, even the participants who no longer spoke Chinese, the brain activated additional sections consistent with bilingual processing.
“What we discovered when we tested the children who had been adopted into French-language families and no longer spoke Chinese, was that, like children who were bilingual, the areas of the brain known to be involved in working memory and general attention were activated when they were asked to perform tests involving language," lead study author Lara Pierce said. "These results suggest that children exposed to Chinese as infants process French in a different manner to monolingual French children.”
The researchers say the findings offer new insights into how brain plasticity functions, as well as information on how education might be modified to best suit those with bilingual brain activity. They also plan on conducting future studies to see if there are differences in the complexity of the languages that children are exposed to, such as French and Spanish as opposed to Chinese and French.