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Bilingual Babies Figure Out Grammar Differences At 7 Months, Study

Babies as young as seven months can distinguish between two languages with vastly different grammatical structures, says a new study.

| February 15, 2013 | In the Lab

AsianScientist (Feb. 15, 2013) - Babies as young as seven months can distinguish between two languages with vastly different grammatical structures, according to new research from the University of British Columbia in Canada and Université Paris Descartes in France.

The study, published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications, shows that infants in bilingual environments use pitch and duration cues to discriminate between languages – such as English and Japanese – with opposite word orders.

In English, a function word (verb) comes before a content word (object, e.g. dog, hat, man) and the duration of the content word is longer. In Japanese or Hindi, the order is reversed, and the pitch of the content word higher. For example, one would say "eat an apple" in English, and say "ringo-wo taberu" in Japanese, which means 'apple.acc eat.'

So how do bilingual infants succeed at the particularly challenging task of learning two languages with conflicting word order?

In this study, the researchers showed that seven-month-old bilingual infants growing up with a verb-object (VO) language (English) and an object-verb (OV) language (Japanese, Korean, Hindi/Punjabi, Farsi, or Turkish) used the characteristic pitch and duration - or prosodic cues - associated with different word orders to solve this problem.

"By as early as seven months, babies are sensitive to these differences and use these as cues to tell the languages apart," says UBC psychologist Janet Werker, co-author of the study.

Further, the infants were also able to exploit cues such as the frequency of words to discern their significance.

"For example, in English the words 'the' and 'with' come up a lot more frequently than other words – they're essentially learning by counting," says Judit Gervain, a linguist at the Université Paris Descartes and co-author of the new study. "But babies growing up bilingual need more than that, so they develop new strategies that monolingual babies don't necessarily need to use."

Werker says speaking two languages to infants will not confuse them, as babies are well-equipped to pick up two languages at the same time.

"If you speak two languages at home, don't be afraid, it's not a zero-sum game," says Werker. "Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways."

The article can be found at: Gervain J et al. (2013) Prosody cues word order in 7-month-old bilingual infants.


Source: UBC; Photo: angietorres/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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