Multilingual or bilingual, infants learn words best when they sound like home

Posted on Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Growing up in a multilingual home has many advantages. However, many parents worry that having their children exposed to multiple languages might delay their language acquisition. A revealing study co-authored by a uOttawa professor could now lay some of these myths about multilingualism to rest. It shows that whether monolingual or bilingual, infants learn a new word best from someone with a language background that matches their own.

Christopher Fennell from the University of Ottawa and Krista Byers-Heinlein from Concordia University wanted to understand the differences in word learning between monolingual and bilingual infants. Their research allowed them to observe that these groups differ not only in how many languages they are learning, but often in whether they are raised by parents who themselves are monolingual or bilingual.

According to Fennell, “both monolingual and bilingual babies are highly attuned to their home language environments. The results contradict previous hypotheses that bilingual children cope better with varied accents than monolinguals and that monolinguals have more solid word representation than bilinguals. All babies show similar strengths and weaknesses in their early word learning abilities."

Adults raised bilingual have an “accent” in both of their languages so subtle that it is not usually detected by other adults. However, children are sometimes sensitive to differences that adults ignore. So, Fennell and Byers-Heinlein asked: Would bilingual children learn words better from an adult bilingual? Would monolingual children learn new words best from an adult monolingual?

To answer these questions, the researchers conducted a test with 61 English monolingual and English-French bilingual 17-month-olds, teaching them two similar-sounding nonsense words. They concluded that both monolingual and bilingual children could learn the words, but only from a speaker whose background matched the language-learning environment they were used to.

“We found that all infants, regardless of whether they are learning one or two languages, learn words best when listening to people who sound like their primary caregivers,” Fennell explains. “Monolingual infants succeeded with a monolingual speaker, bilingual infants with a bilingual speaker, but each group had difficulty with the opposite type of speaker.” In other words, there was no overall bilingual advantage or a bilingual delay, just a difference in which speaker the babies found easier to learn words from.

Consult the full study here.

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