Technology & Science

Bilingual babies keep ability to discern languages from visual cues

Babies as young as four months old can tell whether a speaker has switched languages from visual cues alone, but only those who grow up in a bilingual home seem to hang on to the ability, researchers have found.

Babies as young as four months old can tell whether a speaker has switched languages from visual cues alone, but only those who grow up in a bilingual home seem to hang on to the ability, researchers have found.

In Friday's issue of the journal Science, Whitney Weikum, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues report the results of their tests on 96 infants who were shown video clips of bilingual speakers.

The study is the first to show young babies are prepared to tell languages apart using only visual information, Weikum said.

The researchers tested infants at four, six and eight months of age from English-only homes and six and eight-month-olds from bilingual English and French homes.

Each group was shown silent video clips of bilingual speakers, who recited sentences first in one language and then switched to the other.

"We expected that if the baby noticed the change in the language, they would start watching the screen again," Weikum told CBC News.

The babies did just that. At four and six months, babies paid closer attention and watched the video for longer when the speakers switched languages, which suggests the infants were able to discern the change from visual information alone.

While six-month-olds from monolingual and bilingual environments could tell languages apart visually, by eight months of age, only babies from bilingual homes who were familiar with both languages continued to be able to do so, the researchers found.

Early second language immersion

The results suggest that by eight months, only babies learning more than one languagemaintain their ability to use visual language information.If not, their sensitivityfor other languages declines,Weikum said.

"It's as if they're prepared to learn any or more than one of the world's languages," said study co-author Janet Werker, a psychology professor atUBC."They stop using that information that they don't need,andthey continue to sharpen and use the information that they do."

The studygoes against the adage that babies are empty vessels waiting to be filled, Werker said. Instead, they start with manytools,maybe more than they need, she said.

The researchers said they don't have an answer for parents whowant to know if they should try to immerse their children in a second language by four months, and if there will be detriments if they don't. Theyhope to address those questions as their work continues.

It is also not clear why infants can tell languages apart without hearing them, said study co-author Athena Vouloumanos, apsychology professorat McGill University in Montreal.

"One possibility is the rhythms of the language," Vouloumanos said. "English and French are actually in different rhythmical classes— English is a stress-based language, while French is syllable-based."

With files from the Canadian Press

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