Infants recognize foreign languages as a form of communication

January 24, 2018, New York University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Infants recognize that speech in a language not their own is used for communication, finds a new psychology study. The results, which appear in the journal Cognition, offer new insights into how language is processed at a young age.

"By their first birthday, babies understand that foreign languages can communicate information between people, even though the babies themselves don't understand the foreign ," explains Athena Vouloumanos, an associate professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and the author of the study. "This tells us that ' processing of formal aspects of language, such as speech sounds and , is separate from infants' processing of communicative aspects of language—specifically, the transferring of information."

It has long been established that infants understand that speech in their native language allows speakers to communicate. Less clear is whether or not this understanding limited to their native language—does it extend to non-native languages with which infants have no experience?

To address this question, Vouloumanos conducted a series of experiments in which 12-month-old infants viewed human actors communicating in multiple ways. The infants' responses—i.e., their gaze—were recorded by an observer. Gaze length is a commonly used measurement for spotting infants' comprehension of language and concepts.

In the experiments, the infants saw an actor, the Communicator, repeatedly select one of two objects. When the Communicator could no longer reach the target but a second player, a Recipient, could, the Communicator vocalized a nonsense phrase either in English (infants' native language), Spanish (rhythmically different), or Russian (structurally different), or hummed (a non-speech vocalization). The infants had not been exposed to Spanish or Russian before.

Across all three languages, native and non-native, but not humming, infants looked longer when the Recipient gave the Communicator the non-target compared to the target object. By contrast, when the Communicator hummed, infants looked equally at the non-target and target outcomes. By looking longer when the Recipient handed over the non-target object, the infants seemed to recognize that a miscommunication had taken place or that the verbal interaction had some communicative value—even if it wasn't in their native language.

"These results indicate that infants can generalize beyond their specific experience with their own to recognize that all languages can allow people to communicate," Vouloumanos explains. "By 12 months, infants do not readily map non-native words to objects or discriminate most non-native speech contrasts, but they can understand that non-native languages can transfer information to others."

Explore further: Do infants judge others' language proficiency? It depends on their own, research shows

More information: Athena Vouloumanos, Voulez-vous jouer avec moi? Twelve-month-olds understand that foreign languages can communicate, Cognition (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.01.002

Related Stories

Do infants judge others' language proficiency? It depends on their own, research shows

January 7, 2015
Monolingual infants expect others to understand only one language, an assumption not held by bilingual infants, a study by researchers at New York University and McGill University has found.

Study shows infants pay more attention to native speakers

October 5, 2016
Almost from the moment of birth, human beings are able to distinguish between speakers of their native language and speakers of all other languages. We have a hard-wired preference for our own language patterns, so much so ...

'Cultural learners' in the cradle

August 10, 2016
We are "culturally biased" right from the cradle and we tend to prefer information we receive from native speakers of our language, even when this information is not transmitted through verbal speech. Hanna Marno, researcher ...

Study: Infants can use language to learn about people's intentions

July 23, 2012
Infants are able to detect how speech communicates unobservable intentions, researchers at New York University and McGill University have found in a study that sheds new light on how early in life we can rely on language ...

Simply listening prompts speech practice before an infant's first words

July 9, 2015
Infants take in the sounds of various languages indiscriminately until about 8 months of age, when their brains start to focus only on the predominant language they hear around them, according to researchers. But, they say, ...

Ga-ga, goo-goo, why a baby likes you

July 13, 2017
By the age of one, infants already prefer speakers of their native tongue, but do not necessarily view speakers of an unfamiliar language negatively, according to new UBC research. The findings suggest that, while positivity ...

Recommended for you

College students choose smartphones over food

November 16, 2018
University at Buffalo researchers have found that college students prefer food deprivation over smartphone deprivation, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

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.