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Adoptees advantaged by birth language memory

Anne Cutler, Processing

Date: 18 January 2017

Language learning very early on in life can be subconsciously retained even when no conscious knowledge of the early experience remains. The subconscious knowledge can then be tapped to speed up re-learning of the sounds of the lost tongue, even including how to pronouce them.

These are the conclusions of a study of international adoptees by Jiyoun Choi of Hanyang University (ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language [CoEDL] postdoc in 2016, based at Western Sydney University’s MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development), Anne Cutler (CoEDL chief investigator, also at MARCS) and Mirjam Broersma of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Centre for Language Studies at Radboud University. A paper describing their results has just been published in Royal Society Open Science

The experiment involved 29 Korean-born Dutch speakers and an equal-sized native Dutch-speaking control group.  Throughout a quick 10 - 12 day period of training, the adoptees were asked to identify three Korean consonants and then to try and reproduce them. (The sounds were unlike anything in Dutch.) The spoken productions collected in the experiment were then rated by Korean listeners.

Subconscious knowledge can be tapped to speed up re-learning of the sounds of the lost tongue

Adoptees’ production scores (attempts at articulating the correct sound) improved significantly more across the training period than control participants’ scores, and, for adoptees only, relative production success correlated significantly with rate of learning to identify the sounds, which also surpassed that of the controls.

One of the most interesting findings was that no difference showed in the learning results of those Korean-born participants adopted under six months of age and those adopted after that age (though as a whole the adoptees did much better than the native Dutch-speaking controls). This means that even in the very early months of life, useful language knowledge is laid down.

Cutler says that these results show that what has been retained about the birth language is abstract knowledge about what patterns are possible, not, for instance, words.  Significant learning occurs in the womb and first six months of life but up until now it wasn’t clear what of that learning might be retained even without any further input in the language, and how it could be usefully called upon for language (re-)learning.

“Especially important is the finding that the adoptees were not only better at recognising the different Korean sounds, they were also able to reproduce the sounds more accurately,” Cutler said. “Turning heard sounds into spoken sounds involves making a representation of the sounds. Also, it is very significant that adoptees who left Korea being able to say some basic words in Korean showed no advantage over those adopted as babies younger than six months. This means that the retained information was not dependent on the amount of the original language experience”.

For people adopted internationally the news is very good, especially as many of them try to reconnect with the people and culture of their birth countries. As the authors stress in their paper, lasting cognitive/linguistic abilities are being laid down even in the earliest months of life.

Sound file - t*ami Listen to three Korean consonants used in the experiment

For more information:

Leanne Scott on 0437 839 216 or email:

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