[lg policy] British Columbia: Hearing two languages in womb puts babies on bilingual path

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 19 17:10:40 UTC 2010

Hearing two languages in womb puts babies on bilingual path

Study by UBC psychologists finds language acquisition takes root
before birth, months before infants understand their first word

By Thandi Fletcher, Canwest News ServiceFebruary 19, 2010

Babies who hear two languages while in the womb are already well on
the path to bilingualism, suggests a new study by Canadian

The study, carried out by psychological scientists at the University
of British Columbia, found language acquisition takes root even before
birth, months before babies begin to even understand or speak their
first word.

"Babies are listening to language very, very early in life," said
Janet Werker, co-author of the study and a psychology professor.

The study examined newborns with bilingual mothers who spoke both
languages regularly during pregnancy. They found not only are
bilingual babies interested in hearing both their native languages,
but they can also tell the two languages apart.

"This gives them a leg up at getting started at bilingual language
acquisition," said Werker.

The study involved two experiments with two groups of mother-newborn
pairs: The mothers of one group had spoken only English while
pregnant, while the others spoke both English and Tagalog, a language
spoken in the Philippines.

During the first experiment, newborns heard 10 minutes of speech that
alternated every minute between English and Tagalog. But the
researchers needed a method to determine the babies' response to
different languages.

"If you want to ask questions of newborn babies, they don't answer
them very well," Werker laughed.

She said, however, that the sucking reflex of a newborn baby is very
well developed at birth and can be used to determine interest in a

Taking advantage of this, scientists connected a pacifier to a
computer to record sucking activity. The computer counted the number
of strong sucks per minute when each baby heard either language. On
average, monolingual English babies gave more strong sucks per minute
when hearing English, while bilingual babies gave the same number of
sucks upon hearing both languages.

Realizing the bilingual babies could have shown equal interest in both
languages simply because they didn't know the difference, the
researchers devised a second experiment to determine if the babies
were able to tell the languages apart.

The infants heard sentences being spoken in one language until they
lost interest. Then they either heard sentences spoken in the other
language or sentences spoken in the same language, but by a different

The result found babies sucked more when they heard the language
change, but not with a different person speaking the same language,
suggesting they are able to tell the difference between two languages
from early stages in life.

Werker said many bilingual parents are concerned that if they speak
two languages, their children are going to be language-delayed or
confused -- but this research refutes that notion.

"The take-home message for parents is, if you're a monolingual
speaker, your baby is going to be prepared at birth to have a leg-up
on learning that language. And if you're a bilingual speaker, your
baby is going to be equally prepared to start learning two languages,"
she said.

"We encourage parents to enjoy talking to their babies because babies
enjoy listening."

The study, also co-authored by Krista Byers-Heinlein and Tracey Burns,
will be published in the March edition of the journal Psychological



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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