Subconscious Language

Jasmine Chou (’23) draws on personal experience and research to discuss the amazing power of the brain to process language. “…learning how to speak or recognize a native language (even without using it or speaking it for several years) was an example of unconscious learning being done.”

I was raised in America, with second-generation Taiwanese American parents. My parents were also born in the States, so we mainly speak English at home. Both my mom and dad speak Mandarin fluently, having grown up with immigrant parents. So naturally, they also wanted me to learn how to speak the language. Thus, I grew up going to Chinese school to learn how to read, write, and speak Mandarin Chinese.

The other day, I was talking to my dad about a friend who was adopted from China at a young age and raised by non-Chinese speaking parents. This friend learned a bit of Chinese through school but is not fluent. My dad wondered if this friend had a complete American accent when they spoke Mandarin, or if they were able to pick up on the correct pronunciation and tones that native or bilingual Mandarin speakers had. Although my own first language is English, my pronunciation and tones are pretty similar to a native speaker’s because I started learning Mandarin from a young age. 

This conversation with my dad got me curious, so I searched for an article that might give an answer to this question. One of the articles I came across was from 2014. In this article, Emily Chung explores the brain response of adoptees who lost their language from infancy. Using brain scans, this study showed that children adopted from China as babies can “still unconsciously recognize Chinese sounds as language more than a decade later” even if they were brought up by families that do not speak Chinese. These children had no conscious memory of Chinese, yet when they heard sounds of Chinese language, their brains could react to it in almost the same way that bilingual children raised in a Chinese-speaking family would.¹

From a psychological perspective, this brings in the different types of learning, both conscious and unconscious. Conscious encoding means learning something intentionally, such as doing math problems. The unconscious learning comes without us having to work for it, or learning without being aware of it. In this study, learning how to speak or recognize a native language (even without using it or speaking it for several years) was an example of unconscious learning being done. 

I thought that the findings of this study was very interesting, and showed how strong the influence of language is in our life. The fact that these kids were not able to recognize the Chinese language on the surface, but their brains recognized the sounds subconsciously gives us a good idea of just how intelligent our subconscious memory is. Likewise, I can usually understand more of the language than I can speak or translate. The brain is an amazing, complex organ, and we are constantly learning things about it that we have yet to understand. 

¹The researchers and co-authors of the study noted that their study was preliminary, so they weren’t quite sure what their findings meant. Many questions can still arise and lead to other conclusions or theories.

2 thoughts on “Subconscious Language”

  1. This is so well written! I love how you shared your findings and thoughts with a narrative style. It was super engaging, and I feel like I learned so much!!


  2. This was so interesting to read about, and I love how you reflected on how language shapes people and how it is a really big part of every individual. I also felt like I learned a lot about unconscious learning and all the psychological aspects of learning a language and learning to communicate.


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