Benefits Of Early Language Exposure: Adopted Children Still Retain Cognitive Skills From First Language

Babies may not utter more than unrecognizable babble the first few months of their lives, but new research suggests that they are still absorbing more language skills than you might realize. According to a study from the Netherlands, children who were exposed to Korean in infancy, but never learned to speak the language themselves, still retained signs of having this early language foundation.

A new study published online in Royal Society Open Science found that Dutch-speaking adults who were adopted from South Korea as infants outperformed their age-matched Dutch-born counterparts in their ability to identify and mimic difficult Korean sounds. Even children who were adopted when they were younger than six months old were still able to mimic these sounds better than individuals who were never exposed to the Korean language; this suggests that the brief exposure to Korean during infancy had a lasting effect on these adults' language-learning skills.

Read: How Learning Another Language Keeps Your Mind Sharp, No Matter Your Age

“For Korean listeners, these sounds are easy to distinguish, but for second-language learners they are very difficult to master,” said study coauthor Mirjam Broersma, Science News reported. “Even those who were only 3 to 5 months old at the time of adoption already knew a lot about the sounds of their birth language, enough even to help them relearn those sounds decades later.”

baby Adults adopted from Korea at a young age still retained evidence of their exposure to the Korean language. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

For the study, researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands compared the language skills of 29 native Dutch speakers and 29 South Korea-born Dutch speakers. Of the Korean-born group, half had been adopted when they were older than 17 months, and had already begun speaking a little, while the other half were adopted when they were younger than six months, an age where most babies can not utter recognizable words, Science News reported.

As a whole, the Korean-born group outperformed the Dutch-born group, suggesting that exposure to the Korean language, no matter how brief, had a lasting impact. The team even theorize that language heard during pregnancy may even have an impact on an individual's language skills, although they have not been able to study this concept yet. However, results show that a child’s first word does not necessarily indicate the beginning of this language development.

Exposure to a second language has benefits beyond making it easier to learn new languages later in life. For example, research has shown that speaking two or more languages helps to keep the mind sharp and may prevent cognitive decline commonly associated with aging.

In addition, these benefits may kick in before we even start aging, as the brain power needed to learn and retain two languages has also been shown to help multilingual individuals better concentrate in noisy or distracting settings. The best news? You don’t have to speak a second language from birth in order to reap the benefits. According to Dr. Viorica Marian, a linguist at Northwestern University, starting at any point in life, and even knowing minimal second-language skills, also has its benefits, Medical Daily reported.  

Source: Choi J, Cutler A, Broersma M. Early development of abstract language knowledge: evidence from perception–production transfer of birth-language memory. Royal Society Open Science. 2017

See Also:

Bilingualism And Brain Health: Learning A Second Language Boosts Cognitive Function, Even At Old Age

How Learning A New Language Changes Your Brain And Your Perception

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