I remember having a conversation with an American raising his children in Taiwan. The father was fluent in Mandarin, and he’d started teaching that language to his son at a young age. He told me that it hadn’t worked for him and that he’d read that parents who speak more than one language to their small children only confuse them, as they aren’t able to tell one language from another.
It seemed like sound reasoning to me.
So it surprised me to see new research showing that infants are better at becoming bilingual than I’d thought. As it turns out, by the age of seven months, babies can distinguish between languages by recognizing their different grammar structures.
The study, published in Nature Communications, focused on languages with opposite grammar patterns—such as English, which most often has the verb before the object, and Turkish, which follows the object-then-verb arrangement. Infants in bilingual environments pick up on these patterns and can distinguish between the languages, by listening to differences in pitch, duration, and word frequency.
Janet F. Werker, of the University of British Columbia, is co-author of the study, along with Judit Gervain, of the Université Paris Descartes. Werker reassures parents in bilingual households. “If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” she says. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”
Werker and Gervain’s research is one more step forward in what we know about infants and language learning. In 2001, Patricia Kuhl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, told the Smithsonian magazine that six-to-eight-month olds can already distinguish between different vowel and consonant sounds in the languages they hear everyday and in languages “foreign” to them. But by their first birthday, they can no longer differentiate between sounds that are not part of a language that they’ve been exposed to. This is because they have developed a focus on familiar sounds, while “tuning out” unfamiliar ones. Then, later on in life, when the familiar competes against the unfamiliar, say, when learning a new language, the old sounds will usually win out. The result is a non-native accent.
To register what sounds infants can differentiate, Kuhl used a “head-turn” study (similar to that used by Werker and Gervain). In one example, two-thirds of both American and Japanese six-month olds could hear the difference between “la” and “ra.” But by the one-year mark, 80% of American children responded to the difference, while only 59% of the Japanese children did. Since the latter rate is only 9 percentage points above chance, this showed that the Japanese children had joined their parents in no longer being able to distinguish between the two sounds.
According to Kuhl,
The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic. You don’t think about it, like walking. [Familiar sounds] become more and more embedded into the map, until eventually they are almost ineradicable.
This accent map gets harder and harder to change as time goes by. On the other hand, if a child is exposed to multiple languages early enough—while the map is being drawn—the child can create more than one map at once.
Kuhl also has found (as shown in the TED Talk below) that if this exposure to languages is to have an effect on an infant, it must come from a live person. Listening to audio, even with an accompanying video of the speaker, does no good.
It’s Never Too Early to Learn
According to DNAinfo New York, some parents in the Big Apple are even learning a new language themselves in order to make sure that exposure to multiple languages happens for their children at an early age.
Take, for instance, Rhonda Ross, of Harlem, who went to a boarding school in a French-speaking area of Switzerland when she was a student. Later, when her son, Raif, turned one, she began speaking to him only in French. “I started with a French babysitter,” she said, “but a friend convinced me I would have to speak French to my son myself if I really wanted him to be fluent.”
Not being fluent herself, that means that Ross has to keep learning as she teaches her son. But she feels that the effort is worth it. In fact, she is so pleased with the outcome, that she’s introduced Raif to Mandarin and Spanish, as well.
Linguist Jennifer Wilkin, of Brooklyn, is another advocate of early bilingual education. In 2001, she founded Science, Language & Arts, where parents and children can learn French and Mandarin. “There is certainly a trend among New Yorkers to give a language to their children,” said Wiklin, who “knows several parents who are learning, and speaking, Spanish, Japanese, French and German to their children.”
While Wilkin’s school has students from preschool through fifth grade, Lyndsey St. John started Baby French in a Brooklyn ice-cream parlor and candy shop named The Candy Rush. The class caters to children who haven’t even learned to talk yet. “It’s really good to start those [language] pathways forming at a very early age,” said Wilkins. “Anywhere from 8 months to 3 years is when children are really sponges. They’re picking up everything.”
(Judit Gervain and Janet F. Werker, “Prosody Cues Word Order in 7-Month-Old Bilingual Infants,” Nature Communications, February 14, 2013; “Bilingual Babies Know Their Grammar by Seven Months,” The University of British Columbia Public Affairs, February 14, 2013; Edwin Kiester, Jr., “Accents Are Forever,” Smithsonian, January 2001; Julie Norwell, “New York Parents Learn Foreign Languages to Help Kids Become Fluent,” DNAinfo New York, March 6, 2013; “Even before They Utter First Words, Brooklyn Babies Take French Lessons,” DNAinfo New York, August 22, 2012)
[photo: “Mommy Tells a Story,” by Dan LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license]