Babies able to tell through visual cues when speakers switch languages

May 24, 2007

At four months, babies can tell whether a speaker has switched to a different language from visual cues alone, according to a University of British Columbia study.

Researcher Whitney Weikum found that infants are able to discern when a different language is spoken by watching the shapes and rhythm of the speaker's mouth and face movements.

The findings suggest that older infants, raised in a monolingual environment, no longer need this facility. However, babies growing up in a bilingual environment advantageously maintain the discrimination abilities needed for separating and learning multiple languages.

In a paper to be published in the May 25 issue of the journal Science, Weikum explores whether babies use visual speech information to tell the difference between someone speaking their native language(s) and an unfamiliar language. Weikum is a UBC Neuroscience doctoral student working with Canada Research Chair and Psychology Prof. Janet Werker.

The researchers tested three groups of infants – ages four, six and eight months – from monolingual English homes and two groups of infants –ages six and eight months – from bilingual homes. They showed each group silent video clips of three bilingual French-English speakers, who recited sentences first in English or French, and then switched to the other language.

Their findings suggest that visual information alone will prompt the babies at four and six months to pay closer attention and watch the video for a longer period when the speakers switch languages.

"We already know that babies can tell languages apart using auditory cues," says Weikum. "But this is the first study to show that young babies are prepared to tell languages apart using only visual information."

The researchers found that six-month-old babies from both bilingual French-English and monolingual English homes could tell the languages apart visually. These groups would watch the video clips for a significantly longer period if the speaker switched languages.

However, by eight months, only babies from a bilingual French-English home and familiar with both languages were able to tell the languages apart visually.

"This suggests that by eight months, only babies learning more than one language need to maintain this ability. Babies who only hear and see one language don't need this ability, and their sensitivity to visual language information from other languages declines."

Source: University of British Columbia

Explore further: Depression in pregnancy—why doing nothing about it may be a bad idea

Related Stories

How machine learning advances artificial intelligence

November 18, 2016

Computers that learn for themselves are with us now. As they become more common in 'high-stakes' applications like robotic surgery, terrorism detection and driverless cars, researchers ask what can be done to make sure we ...

Why 'baby talk' is good for your baby

October 10, 2016

People often tell new parents to avoid sing-song "baby talk" with their new addition to the family because it will slow the child's language development.

Babies' first gestures are a key sign of how they'll talk

November 1, 2016

Babies' first gestures are a reliable indicator of how their language will develop, according to new research to be highlighted at the ESRC Festival of Social Science. Understanding these early behaviours gives parents the ...

Drugmakers fought state opioid limits amid crisis

September 18, 2016

The makers of prescription painkillers have adopted a 50-state strategy that includes hundreds of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions to help kill or weaken measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription ...

Recommended for you

Artificial beta cells

December 8, 2016

Researchers led by ETH Professor Martin Fussenegger at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) in Basel have produced artificial beta cells using a straightforward engineering approach.

Key regulator of bone development identified

December 8, 2016

Loss of a key protein leads to defects in skeletal development including reduced bone density and a shortening of the fingers and toes—a condition known as brachydactyly. The discovery was made by researchers at Penn State ...

Researchers question lifelong immunity to toxoplasmosis

December 8, 2016

Medical students are taught that once infected with Toxoplasma gondii—the "cat parasite"—then you're protected from reinfection for the rest of your life. This dogma should be questioned, argue researchers in an Opinion ...

TET proteins drive early neurogenesis

December 7, 2016

The fate of stem cells is determined by series of choices that sequentially narrow their available options until stem cells' offspring have found their station and purpose in the body. Their decisions are guided in part by ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.