Early exposure to a language influences how the brain processes sounds from a different language later in life, suggests a study published in Nature Communications.
During the first year of life, the brain is highly tuned to collecting and storing information about the world through the senses. During this time, the brain adapts to the sounds of a given language and neural representations of these sounds are established. However, it is unclear if and how these early experiences impact later neural processing of a second language.
Using fMRI scanning, Lara Pierce and colleagues recorded the brain activity of 43 children (aged 10-17) while they listened to made up French words (pseudowords) - such as ‘vapagne’ or ‘chansette’ - and performed working memory tasks in which they had to determine when a pseudoword was repeated. They tested three groups of fluent French-speaking children: French-speaking children with no exposure to Chinese; Chinese children who also spoke French fluently as a second language; and Chinese children who were adopted as infants by French parents and who only spoke French.
Although all groups performed the tasks equally well, brain activation differed between the groups. In monolingual French children with no exposure to Chinese, all areas of the brain expected to be involved in processing of language-associated sounds were activated. However, in addition to activation of these same regions, both Chinese-exposed groups showed activation of areas involved in cognitive control and attention.
These results suggest that children exposed to Chinese as infants process French in a different manner compared to monolingual French children.