Language heard, but never spoken, by young babies bestows a hidden benefit

mother and baby laughing and playing

Babies who heard Korean spoken in their first six months of life were better able to pick up the language later as adults, a study finds. The results show how early language exposure patterns the brain in ways that may not be revealed for decades, if ever.  


The way babies learn to speak is nothing short of breathtaking. Their brains are learning the differences between sounds, rehearsing mouth movements and mastering vocabulary by putting words into meaningful context. It’s a lot to fit in between naps and diaper changes.

A recent study shows just how durable this early language learning is. Dutch-speaking adults who were adopted from South Korea as preverbal babies held on to latent Korean language skills, researchers report online January 18 in Royal Society Open Science. In the first months of their lives, these people had already laid down the foundation for speaking Korean — a foundation that persisted for decades undetected, only revealing itself later in careful laboratory tests.

Researchers tested how well people could learn to identify and speak tricky Korean sounds. “For Korean listeners, these sounds are easy to distinguish, but for second-language learners they are very difficult to master,” says study coauthor Mirjam Broersma, a psycholinguist of Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. For instance, a native Dutch speaker would listen to three distinct Korean sounds and hear only the same “t” sound.

Broersma and her colleagues compared the language-absorbing skills of a group of 29 native Dutch speakers to 29 South Korea-born Dutch speakers. Half of the adoptees moved to the Netherlands when they were older than 17 months — ages at which the kids had probably begun talking. The other half were adopted as preverbal babies younger than 6 months. As a group, the South Korea-born adults outperformed the native-born Dutch adults, more easily learning both to recognize and speak the Korean sounds.

This advantage held when the researchers looked at only adults who had been adopted before turning 6 months old. “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,” Broersma says.

Uncovering this latent skill decades after it had been imprinted in babies younger than 6 months was thrilling, Broersma says. Many researchers had assumed that infants start to learn the sounds of their first language later, around 6 to 8 months after birth. “Our results show that that assumption must have been wrong,” she says.

It’s possible that some of these language skills were acquired during pregnancy, as other studies have hinted. Because the current study didn’t include babies who were adopted immediately after birth, the results can’t say whether language heard during gestation would have had an influence on later language skills. Still, the results suggest that babies start picking up language as soon as they possibly can.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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