Can a bilingual baby understand in which language a person is speaking even before they can speak? How old does a baby have to be before it can decipher which language is being spoken… or even realize there is a difference? And even more impressively, how do they do it?
The way the brain of a bilingual baby works during language development is truly incredible! It utilizes patterns of pitch and sound, specifically the duration of the sound, to group together the words from different language systems. This grouping allows the bilingual baby to start to identify not only which system is being used, but which person generally uses which system. For this reason, bilingual children are generally very good at using the correct language system when addressing various people in a multilingual environment.
According to livescience, babies can actually learn the differences between languages as early as seven months old. The experiment outlined below actually made up a language of 11 words and then spoke that language to the babies while varying pitch and sound duration for each respective group. Both groups perceived the made-up language as a different language than that of their native, or first, language. The babies in the study were bilingual English/other from birth.
I have noticed this in my own son’s language development. You can see that he understands the differences between English and Spanish in our home. My wife and I almost always, as in 99.9% of the time, speak to him in Spanish. If for some reason one of us says something to him in English, he will react with a surprised look as if to say, “Papa, de que hablas?” It’s interesting to know that underneath all of that cuteness there is a little language-making machine spinning its proverbial wheels. This little bilingual baby certainly has his work cut out for him making sense of it all.
As parents of a bilingual baby, this research is important to us for two reasons:
The first reason is that it reinforces the necessity to be consistent when choosing one of the parenting techniques for bilingual children. As early as age six to seven months, your bilingual baby already knows the difference between the various languages that he is hearing. If you are constantly switching back and forth when addressing him, this may, on some level, cause confusion. Learning to speak as a baby is probably complicated enough without us clumsy adults confusing them!
The second reason is that it reinforces the importance of beginning to speak to the child in their second language as early as possible. If a bilingual baby can understand the differences between the two languages this early, they must then be learning aspects of the two languages as well. Studies have shown that a bilingual baby can begin to distinguish between his or her two languages as early as four months old; even if the two languages are in the same rhythm class.
In addition to picking up on sound and speech patterns, babies may be learning whole words as early as six months!
In another article on livescience.com, recent research has shown that babies respond to complete words by looking at the appropriate picture representing that word in front of them. For example, if you say ‘la leche’ the bilingual baby, assuming they know Spanish obviously, will look at a picture of the milk more often than he will of other pictures presented to him.
“I think this study presents a great message to parents: You can talk to your babies, and they’re going to understand a bit of what you’re saying,” Swingley said.
Whether your bilingual baby understands every word you say, or just gazes at you lovingly because you are their mother or father, great reasons still exist to chat it up with your baby. Especially you fathers! Fathers play a huge role in language development in children!
What do you think? Does your bilingual baby have this ‘ability’ to distinguish between his or her languages? Have you seen this elsewhere? Comment below!
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