Dutch study shows you never forget your mother tongue

Dutch study shows you never forget your mother tongue

If you’re an expat, then it’s likely your life involves speaking more than one language. If you’ve also got children, then it’s possible they are bilingual and perhaps even attend an international school or day care centre where they come across many other languages. Does this mean that expat children are better equipped to learn languages? It may just! 

A study on mother tongues

According to a recent study, babies build knowledge of their mother tongue during the first few months of life. This means that anyone moving to another country at a very young age will never forget their mother tongue. Instead, they retain an underlying knowledge of it and are more able to learn it again later on in life.

Scientists at Radboud University in Nijmegen, in collaboration with Hanyang University in Seoul and the University of Western Sydney in Australia, studied a group of 25 Korean adults who were adopted shortly after birth into Dutch-speaking families, and found that they still remembered something of their native tongue. 

The Koreans they studied were compared to 29 Dutch born and bred adults and 25 Koreans who were reared in their mother tongue.  The Korean-Dutch adults, who were either adopted as toddlers (aged around 17 months) or infants (under six months), were now around 30 years old.

Testing language ability 

During the study, all subjects were required to do various tasks to test their language ability. One of these was to pronounce Korean consonants, which are far different from Dutch ones.

Whilst there was no difference between the Dutch and Korean-Dutch group before undertaking this particular task, there was a notable difference afterwards that showed those with Korean roots did remarkably better.

Furthermore, it showed that whilst there was no difference between children who were adopted before they were six months old, the children who were adopted when they were older than 17 months, after they could speak their mother tongue, were able to retain the skills necessary to learn it with ease later on.

The study was the first of its kind in showing that children who switch languages as toddlers are given an advantage to pick up their native tongue decades later even if they think they have forgotten the language. 

Talk to your kids

According to leading researcher, Dr. Jiyoun Choi, parents should talk to their babies in their native language because they will be able to absorb and process what the parents says.

The study showed that even within the first few months of life, babies are able to pick up useful language skills, which are maintained without further practise of the language, and yet will arise again during future learning.

Kiri Scully


Kiri Scully

Raised a global citizen, to an Irish father and American mother, Kiri has lived and worked in five countries over three continents. Fuelled by culture curiosity at an early age,...

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