Retrieving our “First language” of love and respect for life

By Dave Andrusko

Stay with me for three minutes as I introduce you to “’Lost’ first languages leave permanent mark on the brain, new study reveals,” which appeared in The Guardian newspaper. It’s an older story which I had put aside to comment on but forgot. However I believe it has a direct message for us that is very relevant to us today.

The study challenged earlier research which “suggested that the childhood language of adoptees may be erased from the brain as the children acquire their new language,” according to David Stringer, associate professor of second-language studies at Indiana University.

Here are the results in a nutshell. (Remember that in tonal languages, such as Mandarin, depending on the tone a word is spoken in, it could mean many different things.) Holly Young writes

The experiment involved 49 girls aged between nine and 17 in the Montreal area. The girls fell into three groups: monolingual French speakers with no exposure to Chinese, girls bilingual in French and Chinese, and the Chinese adoptees. All groups were asked to listen to “pseudo words” that used the tones prevalent in Chinese languages.

What did MRI scans reveal?

[T]hat the adoptees showed the same brain activity as native speakers, despite no longer being able to understand and speak anything in the language.

This was directly at odds with a 2003 study of Korean children adopted by French speakers which suggested the early languages had been lost.

How do you reconcile the two findings? According to Young

Alison Mackey, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, said the new findings provided evidence for the hypothesis that early language learning is permanent, and what can look like language loss might actually be a problem of retrieval. She said: “It’s there, but it’s not easily accessed, in other words.”

Application to us? When many of us were growing up, we were bilingual in a different way than is meant today. English was our first language but as we were acculturated we were taught us another “mother tongue.”

The vocabulary of that second language was filled with words such as respect for life, the dignity of every human being, and an obligation to the powerless. We spoke that language effortlessly.

Alas, many of us now seem to have lost our fluency. These words are used so infrequently that when we do attempt to articulate them, it’s almost as if they stick to the roof of our mouth.

But if we apply the principle Prof. Mackey offers, these potent words are not gone. They are merely not “easily accessed,” largely because the words have been essentially put out to pasture or transposed in a way that turns their true meaning inside out.

Yet we can take heart, knowing that we have not lost that “early language.”

To make one more application of the study, the results of which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Kate Watkins, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, told Young the results “had interesting implications for those who may choose to ‘relearn’ their first languages.” (I should mention that the average age at which the girls were placed for adoption was 12.8 months.)

“It would suggest that someone who had this very short exposure would have an advantage if they wanted to learn this language again. If your brain is wired up to detect these [sound] categories you are probably going to have an easier time learning the language.”

We may be rusty when attempting to speak this “second language” because our retrieval time has slowed. But even if we only heard the language of love, the vocabulary of compassion, and the grammar of mutual dependence when we were young, years later the life-affirming sentiments these evocative words evoke are still there to access.

And the more we speak that language, the more eloquently we will become in making the case for life and in bringing new converts into the greatest movement for social justice of our time.