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!


  1. Actually, the linked article is in Science, not Nature. That’s like mixing up Aussies and Kiwis. 😉

  2. D’oh! Thanks, I fixed it. That’s what we call a “brain-o” in our household.

  3. dearieme says

    But it’s easy to tell French from English – just watch the shoulders.

  4. SnowLeopard says

    In the May 25 journal article, the researchers don’t explain how they determined a household to be “bilingual”, or explicitly say that both languages were spoken around the infant in the home– I’d expect even bilingual parents to have a preference for one language or the other, and for that to confuse the sampling.

  5. How sad for those of us who did not have bilingual exposure as babies. This is the sort of thing that makes me feel deprived. (America is so materially affluent, yet so linguistically impoverished.)

  6. Hmmh. Isn’t this exactly what you would expect after reading this neuroscience article (viz: as referenced in a recent NY Times article.
    That is, if the brain doesn’t need it, then it gets ‘thrown away’ at least for the time being. It does seem like a loss (see Julia’s comment) until considered even further.
    A good memory is impeded if there is not also a good ‘forgettery”
    Time for me to become a child again. These TIAs are a nuisance but do offer continual fresh perspective.

  7. What about babies from stricktly French speaking households? There weren’t any mentioned. Would they respond towards French the way the soon-to-be English or bilingual English-French speaking babies did?
    Sorry, but it all sounds like baby talk to me.

  8. My son spent his first six months in a bilingual orphanage, where the caretakers were divided between Russian and Kazakh speakers. From our month of observing there, the caretakers did speak to the babies, and our son clearly recognized both languages as relevant (probably because his only one-on-one time, when someone would talk to him, was feeding). On first meeting his monolingual English speaking parents, his attitude was definitely, “I’m not interested. you aren’t really talking. I know what talking sounds like, and that’s not it.” Happily for us but sadly for his mulitlingual development, he left at seven months, far too soon to retain any Russian or Kazakh.

  9. Indeed. But if he learns either of those languages he will have a leg-up on their phonologies.

  10. January First-of-May says

    In a classic anecdote that I keep bringing up in linguistic discussions, the rather multiethnic family of one of my Israeli cousins decided to bring him up multilingually. So, for example, his mom, who came from Romania, would speak Romanian to him; Russian was also involved (from our common grandmother, IIRC), and I forgot what else.

    Sadly, when he turned three, just short of when he would have fully picked up the multilinguality, the family got tired of him still not speaking any language at all, and everyone switched to Hebrew (which of course they all knew). Naturally, he started replying in Hebrew almost immediately after that.

    Last time I talked to him, it was in English, as he didn’t appear to know any Russian. Now I wonder if he actually did manage to retain any (and Romanian, for that matter).

  11. David Marjanović says

    When he turned three, he probably hadn’t grown a long-term memory yet, so I’m guessing he didn’t retain any, just like I haven’t retained any FYLOSC.

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