A paper published recently in Science, “Visual Language Discrimination in Infancy” by Whitney M. Weikum et al, “shows that 4- and 6-month-old infants can discriminate languages (English from French) just from viewing silently presented articulations. By the age of 8 months, only bilingual (French-English) infants succeed at this task.” A CBC News story elaborates:
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.
The results suggest that by eight months, only babies learning more than one language maintain their ability to use visual language information. If not, their sensitivity for 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 at UBC. “They stop using that information that they don’t need, and they continue to sharpen and use the information that they do.”
Fascinating stuff; many thanks to Jordan for the CBC link!