Babies remember their birth language

A new study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal has shown that babies remember elements of language they were exposed to during the first few months of life

From the minute they are born, babies build knowledge about the language they hear, research shows. Even if a child moves countries and forgets their birth language, a hidden ability is retained that makes relearning the language much easier.

Led by Dr Jiyoun Choi of Hanyang University in Seoul, the study looked at a group of Dutch-speaking adults, age 30, adopted from South Korea in their early years. They were asked to pronounce Korean consonants, which are unlike those in the Dutch language, after a short training course. Both groups performed to the same level before training, but afterwards the Korean-born Dutch group exceeded expectations with their pronunciation.

”This finding indicates that useful language knowledge is laid down in [the] very early months of life, which can be retained without further input of the language and revealed via re-learning,” Choi told BBC News.

The study is the first to show that the early experience of adopted children in their birth language gives them an advantage in later life, even if they think it is forgotten. More importantly, adults who had only six months or less exposure of the Korean language as an infant performed just as well in the tests as those who were adopted after 17 months as toddlers. This indicates that language knowledge is abstract in nature, rather than dependent on the amount of speaking experience.

The process of acquiring language starts in the womb; by the time they are born, babies have learnt to recognise their mother’s voice. ”Try to talk to your babies as much as possible because they are absorbing and digesting what you are saying,” comments Choi.