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What If Your Brain Never Forgot The Languages You Learned?

September 09, 2016
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Have you ever forgotten how to speak a language? Good news: You may not remember the vocabulary and grammar patterns, but your brain does. A 2014 study at the University of Washington discovered that neural patterns made by our brains for new languages never disappeared, even when we have not spoken it in years. Researchers studied Canadian children adopted from China as babies, and took MRI scans of their brains while they listened to Chinese. Although the children, now ages 9-17 years old, were preverbal when adopted, all experienced neural activation that mirrored a native Chinese speaker’s brain. This brings up a fascinating thought: even when someone “loses” a language, our brain still understands and retains that knowledge. But where is that forgotten dialect hiding? Neurologists previously believed that language was located in the left side of your brain. Speech production was situated in Broca’s area, and language comprehension was processed in Wernicke’s area. Now, scientists believe that language is not bound to one side of your brain, and can grow your brain’s size. In a study done by Lund University, men in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy had their brains measured before and after an intensive language-training course. After three months, researchers found certain parts of the brain expanding from language development. Specifically, the hippocampus, a part of your brain that helps you learn new material, saw significant growth. While Lund University did not focus its study on lost languages, the hippocampus may be where forgotten speech is hiding. The idea that language can be found deep within the brain is bringing hope to neurologists that focus on aphasia, a disorder that affects a person’s communication. Aphasia is diagnosed over 200,000 times a year, and typically occurs after a stroke or severe head injury. If neurologists can use technology to access the part of the brain where lost languages are directly, patients who suffer from aphasia may find a way to communicate again. In the meantime, neurologists have seen some successes with technology. Recent inventions include a device that allows you to control a computer cursor with your mind, and an eavesdropping machine that taps into your “inner voice."
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