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See Inside May / June 2010

Once Learned, Never Forgotten

Lost languages acquired during childhood persist in the brain

What happens when a language learned as a child is forgotten over time? Many adoptees and emigrants have no conscious memory of their native tongue, but a new study suggests at least some information remains in the brain. A team from the University of Bristol in England showed that English-speaking adults older than 40 who had spoken Hindi or Zulu as children were able to relearn subtle sound contrasts in these languages, but adults who had never spoken the languages could not—even though the childhood speakers had no explicit memory of the languages. Because memories are neuronal connections that get reinforced with regular access, the finding means that even connections that have not been reaccessed for decades do not disappear completely, as previous evidence had suggested. 

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