How do infants learn words when the words come from different languages?

The ability of young infants to learn to speak is one of the miracles of human experience. Just how a young child who comes into the world unable to walk, talk, or see clearly can, within a year or two, begin to speak and communicate with others is an amazing experience for every parent. Although the rate at which children learn words is controversial, children aged 12-24 months are clearly learning multiple words each day, as well as beginning to master the grammatical rules by which the words can be combined.

Our intuitive explanation for this achievement is probably that kids hear many words that are spoken around them, and some of those words “stick” in their minds. But how much do they understand about speakers of those words? They obviously learn that different people can say the same word to mean the same thing. This is the situation of most families in which both parents understand the same language. But in many families this is not the only situation; parents may also speak other languages. If we want to understand language acquisition in the 21st Century we better understand how it works in multilingual families.

My colleague Dr Annette Henderson has just published a fascinating paper in which she and Jessica Scott report research that examines what children of multilingual parents expect words to mean. The basic question is this: Do children who grow up hearing different languages understand that each language uses different labels for a single object? Eventually, they obviously do, so that when the child whose mother speaks Spanish and father speaks German masters both languages fluently, she has demonstrated that different words can be used to refer to the same objects. But what about a 13-month-old infant who is only beginning to use language? It seems reasonable to assume that he might grab hold of any words that float around him before he begins the tricky job of understanding that different people might speak different languages.

Annette and Jessica set up a study where they had 13-month-old infants from bilingual families (that is, their parents spoke at least two different languages fluently) see videos of two different speakers interacting with an unfamiliar object. Some infants saw both speakers using the same language, whereas other infants saw speakers using different languages. Each group saw one speaker pick up the object and say a novel word (e.g. “medo”). This was repeated enough times that the children had plenty of experience with this association.

The key thing was what happened next: The other speaker appeared, and used the same word for the object (“medo”). Annette and Jessica were interested in whether kids would expect two people who’d spoken different languages to use words in the same way, or in different ways. If the infants were just learning to associate words and objects, without paying attention to who was speaking (and what else they were saying), then the kids might expect the same object to be called the same name, but it probably wouldn’t matter who said it. This was not what they found. Instead, the infants appeared surprised when someone who’d spoken a different language turned around and called the object the same name as the original speaker. The only way to explain this result is to assume that the children were sensitive to the fact that the two people were speaking different languages (or at least were using words in different ways), and therefore expected them to use different words to name each object in the world around them.

Crucially, this effect did not occur with monolingual infants. Children who have only been exposed to one language do not seem to understand that there are different ways of referring to objects. In the same test, these children showed no particular surprise when a speaker of one language used the same word to refer to an object as a speaker of another language.

This result is interesting for what it tells us about the nature of multilingual learning, but more than that is shows the incredible sophistication of infant cognition. While learning individual words is complex enough, infants appear to have sensitivity to the different speakers of language, so that they are hearing individuals rather than just a wall of words. Clearly, the 13-month-old brain is much more sophisticated than many of us may give it credit for.

For more information of Dr Annette Henderson’s work, click here:

To download the paper describing this study, click here:

NOTE: Annette is always looking for babies to take part in her experiments, so if you live in the Auckland area and have a baby that would like to participate, please contact her at the link below. No bilingual experience necessary!

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