in Language & Culture

There are quite a few foreign languages can be relatively easy languages to learn for English speakers. That’s because  English is closely related to many European languages and has absorbed vocabulary from lots of them. In other words, you may already have a basis for some languages. According to Anna Merritt, an EFL lecturer based in South Korea, some of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn are Afrikaans, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Norwegian.

But regardless of whether or not you’re a native English speaker, another easy language to learn would be your very first language—the words you understood when you were a child.

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A recent study by researchers at McGill University and the University of Montreal suggest that the any early spoken language that has been forgotten—such as in the case of childhood immigration or adoption—can leave its mark on the brain, even decades after it was last used.

Previous studies had stated that a language learned in childhood but unused later in life is likely to have vanished from the brain. It was thought that people who had forgotten their first language may have a minor advantage learning to discern and produce some of the its phonemes but research showed that early language exposure did not lead to better performance with grammar or vocabulary.

But a research group headed by Kenneth Hyltenstam in Sweden may give those who have since lost their mother tongue a bit of encouragement.  The researchers studied both Swedish speakers and Korean adoptees who had lived in Korea and learned and the language. The two groups did not appear to differ on the two linguistic tests they were given, but the results in the phonetic test were more variable for the Korean adoptees, and a third of them performed better than the Swedish group.

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Researchers conclude that if exposure to the first language lasts over a certain period of time and is intensive, then the forgotten language is more likely to be retrieved. The chances are increased further if the adoption took place towards the end of the first decade of life rather than towards its beginning.

So it’s likely that the remnants of a first language still exist in the brain, although retrieving it would likely take quite a bit of effort. People who spoke a first language but have forgotten it may have an edge over their peers, but they still need to put in the time and energy to eventually become fluent in the language of their birth.


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