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.


  1. The best joke in our household for the last few months has been, “Mama says elephant. Daddy says olifant.”, which is of course the opposite of the actually existing case.
    (There’s also the one contrasting “truck” with “truck”, but that doesn’t really work in print.)
    (Also I found your article increasingly adept over time, so there.)

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    I must say that this does not surprise me. I work in infant care, and my kids at this time are almost all growing up bilingual (Spanish-English). My coworker is more fluent in Spanish, and I in English, and the mothers are most fluent in Spanglish. This is not the same thingas the study was concerned with, but the infants (currently between 9 and 19 months) respond appropriately to conversation in all 3 idioms. They don’t show any discomfort with the effort of understanding all these varieties of language either.

  3. If anyone is interested, the author was interviewed recently on NPR’s “Science Friday:”

  4. John Emerson says

    It fits my theory that the second language is the hardest to learn; the first, third, and all subsequent languages, are easier.

  5. According to there is a major restructuring happening at the NYT and many columns have signed off.

  6. dearieme says

    “It fits my theory that the second language is the hardest to learn”: no doubt that’s why mugs my age and older were obliged to take Latin as our second – pure, ruddy cruelty.

  7. John Emerson: You may well be right, and I suspect you are, about 2nd language learning. However, this study is about child language acquisition which is a different process than language learning after the critical period.

  8. John Emerson says

    George, what the article is about was clear enough. I was taking the argument a step further, pointing out that a bilingual person, regardless of when bilingualism was attained, is going to be a better language learner, since they are no longer able to believe that the particular rules of their language are language universals.
    I’d also suspect that those whose first and second languages are greatly different, like Hungarian and German or Georgian and Russian, are the best students of all.

  9. I think we are agreeing, at least on the level of suspicion.
    Yes, I think that monolinguals likely do universalize the grammar of their language and exposure to a very different grammar opens the door to other possibilities.
    With babies, it would be more intuitive where with adults this awareness would be more conscious.

  10. Forming a conclusion and spending grant money searching for the conditions which confirm your a priori value judgement do NOT a valid scientific study make.

  11. Hozo: How did you determine that the author first “formed a conclusion” before doing the study.
    Secondly, scientific studies begin with a hypothesis which is either confirmed or refuted by evidence. The evidence is what leads to a “conclusion.”
    Thirdly, I missed the “a priori value judgement” of the author. Maybe you could elaborate. Are you suggesting that multilingualism is an ideology?

  12. The idee fixe they start from is that exposing infants to multilingualism creates more perceptive “vigilance” i.e. smarter kids. The conclusion they reached, within the strict subjective parameters they alone defined, serves only to reinforce that a priori masked as hypothesis. Who wouldn’t want their baby to become multilingual if it’s just the case of them “being equally prepared” as growing up with one boring language? In that sense, yes there is an ideology at work in this sort of academic exercise. Multilinguisism is the new default feel-good idea. If it’s just as easy as putting a couple of different language speakers in front of a newborn to engender a fully-fledged future multilinguist, what parent wouldn’t jump to give Jonah or Johanna the early start? They’d have to find time between the genius training and the MENSA enrollment but parental multi-tasking comes with the advanced degreees.

  13. Hozo: “The conclusion they reached, within the strict subjective parameters they alone defined, serves only to reinforce that a priori masked as hypothesis.”
    Who is that you think think should have determined the parameters of the study if not the researcher?
    Is the study flawed? If so, please present your
    Are the authors conclusions unwarranted by the evidence? If so, please explain.
    Have you read the study?

  14. John Emerson says

    Multilinguisism is the new default feel-good idea.
    Most of us here do not have such a negative attitude toward multilingualism.

  15. No, I haven’t read the study. I would, however, ask the researchers what they precisely mean by “households where Spanish and Catalan are spoken”. Does that mean 50/50 or 80/20? The mother may speak only Catalan to the infant while the Spanish-speaking husband may be largely absent? The variables which comprise a “bilingual” home are multiple. By the same token, how were the English and French speaking “faces” presented? The French speaking face may have been exaggeratedly gestual while the English one stoic? The facial “cues” may have been nothing more than an infant reacting like they would to a circus clown or conversely, to their never seen next door neighbor. How did they measure this “more general perceptual vigilance”? Are they also experts on infant development and facial reactions?
    @ Emerson
    full speed ahead for multilingualism, let’s just not read something into 4 month old faces that doesn’t exist

  16. Hozo: Before forming such strong opinions about a study and accusing the authors of preconceived and invalid conclusions, it might be worthwhile to first read it.

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