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Can you forget a language you once knew?

8 June 2007

If you once spoke a second language but no longer do, researchers at Bristol University would like to hear from you. Former speakers of Hindi, Zulu, Cantonese and Mandarin are invited to take part in a new £180,000 language study.

Learning a foreign language late in life can be rewarding but hard work. One of the challenges is a lack of familiarity with unfamiliar sounds. For example, a Japanese speaker finds it hard to distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘r’, which can create confusion with words like ‘lice’ and ‘rice’.


Children, however, have little difficulty learning a second language. They can quickly master a foreign accent and sound like a native speaker. So, what happens if they stop speaking the second language? Do they stop perceiving crucial distinctions between languages? The surprising answer appears to be yes.


A recent French study looked at Korean-born children who were adopted by French parents living in France. After adoption, the children were no longer exposed to Korean. The key finding was that these individuals, when tested in their 20s and 30s, could not distinguish between Korean and Japanese. The conclusion appears to be that learning a second language in childhood is in vain if exposure to that language isn’t sustained.


Professor Jeffrey Bowers and Dr Sven Mattys in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol have received a £180,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council to undertake research in this field. They are currently looking for subjects to take part in their study. Would you like to participate?

  1.  Are you between 10 and 80 years of age?

  2. Are you a native English speaker?

  3. Were you exposed to Hindi, Zulu, Cantonese or Mandarin during childhood? Maybe you were born in India, South Africa or China and later moved with your family to the UK. Maybe you were adopted from one of these countries. Maybe your parents worked in one of these countries for a time when you were a child. Maybe you had a carer who spoke one of these languages. You must have not been re-exposed to these languages in later life.

  4.  Are you available to take part in several 15-minute sessions measuring sound perception?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of the above and would like to find out more about the study, please contact Suzi Gage.  If you are eligible to participate, the research can be carried out in your own home, anywhere in the UK and you will be reimbursed for your time.

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