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.
Kate Schrock has been an editor of Scientific American MIND since 2007, where she edits feature articles and runs Head Lines, the magazine's news department. After studying astronomy and physics at the University of Southern California, she worked in the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying the brain structure of people with schizophrenia. She then enrolled in the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program at New York University, where she earned a master's degree in journalism.