Bilingual Before Birth

I thought this was a cool study reported by Discovery News and AFP last week. I haven’t been able to find the original study to read– or at least to link to the abstract, but it’s by Janet Werker and colleagues and it appears in Psychological Science. Basically, they found that babies who had been exposed to two languages in utero were sensitive to those two languages after birth. In contrast, babies who’d only heard one language were only sensitive to that language. This makes sense and is consistent with other work on speech perception in utero. Patricia Kuhl for example has reported that newborns prefer their mother’s voice — this is perhaps because they had several months of hearing the sounds and patterns of their mother’s voice and it is familiar to them. Bilingual babies however have to cope with two systems that may have different sound patterns, intonational contours, and different sound combinations. But, what’s remarkable is that they can handle it and that they seem to recognize it!

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  1. #1 by Doug Valverde on June 3, 2010 - 1:52 pm

    Janet F. Werker, Krista Byers-Heinlein, and Christopher T. Fennell
    Bilingual beginnings to learning words
    Phil Trans R Soc B 2009 364: 3649-3663.

    (Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences )

    very interesting!

  2. #2 by Doug Valverde on June 3, 2010 - 1:59 pm

    OOPS – Looks like it’s in Psycholocial Science…

    Bilingual Babies: The Roots of Bilingualism in Newborns

    According to new findings in Psychological Science, infants born to bilingual mothers exhibit different language preferences than infants born to mothers who speak only one language. Krista Byers-Heinlein and Janet F. Werker from the University of British Columbia along with Tracey Burns of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in France investigated language preference and discrimination in newborns, testing babies with English monolingual and Tagalog-English bilingual mothers. Results of a “high-amplitude sucking-preference procedure” showed that English monolingual infants were more interested in English than Tagalog. However, bilingual infants had an equal preference for both English and Tagalog. Prenatal bilingual exposure may prepare bilingual infants to listen to and learn both of their native languages. Further testing found that infants are able to discriminate, providing a mechanism that helps ensure bilingual infants do not confuse their two languages from the first moments of life.
    Byers-Heinlein, K., Burns, T.C., & Werker, J.F. (in press) The roots of bilingualism in newborns. Psychological Science.

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