Bilingual babies

Are you worried that your little one has too many languages to cope with? A recent study on bilingualism in babies might reassure you.

Many of us have been asked questions about grammatical rules in our own language to which our immediate answer has been:

“I don’t really know, it’s just the way it is…”

It seems we’ve been breastfed the grammar of our native language. A study done by the University of British Columbia, Canada and the Université Paris Descartes, France, recently published in the scientific journal Nature, shows that the same seems to go for infants in a bilingual family.

Don’t worry, it’s not a “Look Who’s Talking” come true. Babies can neither think in full sentences nor understand ours, but from 7 – 8 months they do use language cues to separate two languages: Pitch, duration, word frequency, stress and intonation. Whereas babies who hear only one language rely mainly on word frequency, bilingual babies need more than that, and cues such as pitch and duration can tell them something about the word order of each language.

Linguistic baby steps

The research team took a particular look at babies hearing two languages with clearly different word orders (a red car, une voiture rouge), and the babies still seemed to take the relevant cues characterizing each of their languages. The findings were the same for several different language pairs. In particular, it seems bilingual babies are sensitive to prosody; the patterns of stress and intonation in a language.

A result of this ability to learn before they can actually speak seems to be an innate knowledge of grammatical structures and the meaning of words, revealing itself when the little ones do put the language to use. Word order is a complex linguistic phenomenon which takes years to master fully, so these are the baby steps, so to speak, into language structure.

The researchers believe their results show how flexible our language learning system is, and how it adapts to the linguistic environment. This means, according to the research team, that parents needn’t worry; bilingual babies are neither confused nor disadvantaged. Rather, the language sensitivity of such children may lead to cognitive advantages and strong mechanisms for language evolution. It might even be that monolingual children are underusing their language capacity.

So when your bilingual baby starts to speak and says “mummy” or “daddy” in both languages just to make sure you understand he’s talking to you, he’s been working on it for quite a while. According to Janet Werker, psychologist and co-author of the study, “babies are remarkably prepared to learn about the world around them, and specifically prepared to learn about language.”

By Unni Holtedahl, February 2013