Published on 17/02/13 at 18:58:21 GMT by Redaksjonen
Newly born babies as young as seven months can distinguish between two languages with vastly different grammatical structures, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by University of British Columbia and Université Paris Descartes and published in the Nature Communications journal, shows that infants in bilingual environments use pitch and duration to discriminate between languages with opposite word orders. Download the entire article here on morsmal.org
As the majority of the world's population today is exposed to multiple languages from birth, a better understanding of their early cognitive development might have considerable impact on social and educational policies worldwide.
When hearing speech in an unfamiliar language, the listener is clueless of the structural rules that speakers use to produce sentences. Similarly, acquiring the grammatical properties of native languages constitutes a seemingly formidable learning challenge for young infants.
Acquiring grammar in a bilingual environment where the two languages have con?icting word orders like English and Japanese is an even more challenging task, and the mechanisms that bilingual infants use to solve this problem are not yet known.
To understand how infants master languages with different word orders, the researchers studied 7-month-old bilingual babies exposed at home to two languages which consist of con?icting word orders (English: eat an apple versus Japanese: ringo-wo taberu = 'apple.acc eat'), as well as infants from monolingual homes.
The researchers used a made-up language of 11 words that mimicked the function and content patterns of a true language. The babies sat on their mothers' laps and listened to a constant stream of these words.
Half of the babies heard words with differences in duration, while the other half heard words with differences in pitch. All of the babies heard two different "languages" - one in which frequent words came before less frequent words, and the other in which less frequent words came first. The two different "languages" were broadcast from different parts of the room, and researchers monitored how long the infants spent looking at the source of these sounds.
The researchers found that bilingual babies looked longer at the source of sounds that matched their expectation of word order, which suggested the infants were using the pitch and duration clues to keep the two languages straight. By contrast, monolingual babies showed no difference in looking times; in other words, they didn't pick up on differences in pitch or duration.
- We showed that 7-month-old bilinguals use the characteristic prosodic cues (pitch and duration) associated with different word orders to solve this problem. Thus, the complexity of bilingual acquisition is countered by bilinguals' ability to exploit relevant cues, concluded the researchers (download the article below).
The findings adds to understanding of how and why infants acquire grammar so early and effortlessly.
- By as early as seven months, babies are sensitive to these differences and use these as cues to tell the languages apart, says University of British Columbia pyschologist Janet Werker, co-author of the study.
Werker recommends bilingual families not to worry and to speak both languages at home:
- If you speak two languages at home, don't be afraid, it's not a zero-sum game. Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways, says Werker.
Janet Werker (left) and parents Harumi Inokoshi and Eric Roe (Photo: Janet Werker, UBC Infant Studies Centre)
More information: For more information contact: - Prof. Janet Werker: UBC Dept. of Psychology, Cell: 604.313.2697, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org - Prof. Judit Gerain; Universite Paris Descartes, E-mail: email@example.com
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