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​The Brain Molds to Language Early and Permanently

Researchers found the brains of Chinese children adopted by French parents maintain “neural representations of their birth language” long after the kids have forgetten even hearing Mandarin.

by Ben Richmond
Nov 17 2014, 8:05pm

​Chinese New Year celebrations in Paris. Image: ​Rui Pereira/Flickr

You have to give Mark Zuckerberg some credit for learning as much Mandarin as he has, even if it isn't perfect. The differences between English and Mandarin run so deeply that our brains process them in different ways.

Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that depending on the intonation with which a word is said, the same syllable can mean "mother" or "horse" or "hemp." In English, "coffee" means "coffee," even if Ben Stein and Gilbert Godfried say the word in their most idiosyncratic manner—and this makes all the difference for how our brains process the syllables.

Researchers found that English activates the left temporal lobe, while Mandarin activates both the right and left temporal lobes in native speakers. These differences in how we process language are formed very early in life and, newly published research indicates, fairly permanently.

Our brains form representations of the sound stimuli that comprise language very early in life, and despite the immense plasticity of the human brain, those neural representations can persist even if you go years without hearing or speaking the language, according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which studied Chinese children who were raised in France.

The researchers from McGill University conducted fMRI studies on 48 female children who had been adopted, on average, just after their first birthdays. Some of the children were raised in households where both French and Chinese were spoken and some were raised speaking only French and didn't remember speaking or hearing Chinese, and some had never been exposed to Chinese and only spoke French.

This image from the paper shows brain activation patterns for various test subjects.

No matter what they may have remembered though, the neural tracks had been laid. The children were put into the scanner for a "Chinese tone discrimination test, wherein participants heard pairs of three-syllable phrases that were either monosyllabic Chinese pseudowords, including lexical tone or nonspeech hummed versions of the same syllables containing tone information but no actual words."

The neural patterns observed in the French-speaking children who were born in China "matched those observed in Chinese/French bilinguals who have had continual exposure to Chinese since birth and differed from monolingual French speakers who had never been exposed to Chinese," the study stated.

The children's brains processed the tonal information as relevant to speech, even if the children, to their knowledge, had never spoke a tonal language. Just as with English speakers, the speakers of French, a non-tonal language, who hadn't been exposed to Mandarin as children only processed language in one lobe.

One thing this research doesn't indicate, though, is whether having this early framework makes it easier for these China-born French speakers to learn Mandarin. There's still a lot to learn about how the brain processes languages, and how language, in fact, shapes the brain.

But look, even if you don't have the neural framework built up, if we learned anything from the Zuck, it's that anyone can learn Mandarin. I mean, Zuck didn't even graduate from college.