How Do Babies Differentiate Between Languages When They Hear Many?

By Emily Murray

Today it seems parents are more interested than ever in priming their children for success in their adult years by beginning this conditioning as early as the first few weeks of life.

In a recent New York Times article, this concept was explored in depth. When young children and babies are brought up in bilingual homes, it was once believed that this may actually lead to language confusion and difficulties in speech. Today, however, we are learning that this may not be the case at all.

Researchers have realized that language is most easily learned in these young impressionable years. Perhaps it stands to reason that the thought process is along the same lines of  “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but when we think about it, do we ever remember learning our native language? Back when we uttered our first words, our brains were like sponges absorbing everything around. Now compare this to the French or Spanish class you stumbled through back in high school. Big difference right? Now that we know the minds ability to grasp multiple languages so early on in life, it has become a growing trend for parents to start urging their children to be bilingual from the beginning. In fact, many elite schools actually will start teaching second languages to toddlers as part of their curriculum.

To further discover how being exposed to multiple languages impacts the young brain, scientists have begun examining the brain in both single-language homes as well as bilingual ones.

It seems hard to imagine how one could go about measuring these types of things in infants since most of their very actions in the beginning seem to be either happiness or sadness without a ton of communication in between. Interestingly enough, researchers actually are able to tell a lot based on these very simplistic behaviors in infants like how “babies turn their gaze or how long they pay attention” as mentioned in the NY Times article. These actions can offer slight insights into what makes sense or sounds familiar to a baby and what doesn’t.

To take the research a bit further, the brain response of infants ages 6 to 12 months raised in both single-language homes and bilingual ones were studied. The results proved that the babies from the homes where a single language was spoken  could discriminate between the phonetic sounds in the language spoken in their own homes as well as an additional language not normally spoken in their home at 6 months of age. As these babies grew to be between 10 to 12 months, they could no longer detect these sounds on the language they were not used to hearing. By this age, the brain has become accustomed to only understanding the native language.

Now when scientists look at these same things in babies from bilingual homes, the results differed slightly. These infants learned along a different path and could not identify any difference in the phonetic sounds in the second language between the ages of 6 to 9 months but once they grew older (10 to 12 months) they could hear the differences in both.

As a parent, future parent or perhaps a grandparent, what can be taken away from this study? How does it impact how we should communicate with the infants in our lives? Learning a language for babies can begin as early as 6 months of age and with this in mind, perhaps speaking a second language to these youngsters can change their cognitive path for the better rather than confusing or delaying speech as earlier thought.