Courtesy of frequent commenter and nugget-finder Paul, an interesting Science News piece called “Infants Raised in Bilingual Environments Can Distinguish Unfamiliar Languages,” which accurately describes the contents: “Infants raised in households where Spanish and Catalan are spoken can discriminate between English and French just by watching people speak, even though they have never been exposed to these new languages before, according to University of British Columbia psychologist Janet Werker.” I reported a few years ago on an earlier study Werker was part of that showed that bilingual infants, unlike monolingual ones, can discern different native languages at eight months after birth.
In Werker’s latest study with Prof. Núria Sebastián-Gallés from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, infants of four and six months were shown silent videos of talking faces speaking English and French. They found that babies growing up bilingual with Spanish and Catalan … were able to distinguish between English and French simply through facial cues, even though they had never before seen speakers of either language.
“The fact that this perceptual vigilance extends even to two unfamiliar languages suggests that it’s not just the characteristics of the native languages that bilingual infants have learned about, but that they appear to have also developed a more general perceptual vigilance,” says Werker, Canada Research Chair in Psychology and director of UBC’s Infant Studies Centre.
“These findings, together with our previous work on newborn infants, provide even stronger evidence that human infants are equally prepared to grow up bilingual as they are monolingual,” Werker adds. “The task of language separation is something they are prepared to do from birth—with bilinguals increasingly adept over time.”
Speaking about perceptual vigilance, my own has brought me the extremely unwelcome news that the New York Times has ended its “On Language” column, which has been a going concern for over three decades; Ben Zimmer’s last column, far more graceful than I could have managed under the circumstances, is here. I had planned to write about it yesterday, but I find I’m too bitter to do so effectively. All those years Safire was writing the column in his genial and often bumbling way, I often cursed at it but would have been appalled to see it ended, and now someone who actually knows what he’s talking about is writing it (see my welcome post from less than a year ago), I’m even more appalled. Shame on you, Times.