Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language
Thread poster: Ty Kendall

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:56
Hebrew to English
May 6, 2012

Once, experts feared that young children exposed to more than one language would suffer “language confusion,” which might delay their speech development. Today, parents often are urged to capitalize on that early knack for acquiring language. Upscale schools market themselves with promises of deep immersion in Spanish — or Mandarin — for everyone, starting in kindergarten or even before.

Yet while many parents recognize the utility of a second language, families bringing up children in non-English-speaking households, or trying to juggle two languages at home, are often desperate for information. And while the study of bilingual development has refuted those early fears about confusion and delay, there aren’t many research-based guidelines about the very early years and the best strategies for producing a happily bilingual child.

But there is more and more research to draw on, reaching back to infancy and even to the womb. As the relatively new science of bilingualism pushes back to the origins of speech and language, scientists are teasing out the earliest differences between brains exposed to one language and brains exposed to two.

Researchers have found ways to analyze infant behavior — where babies turn their gazes, how long they pay attention — to help figure out infant perceptions of sounds and words and languages, of what is familiar and what is unfamiliar to them. Now, analyzing the neurologic activity of babies’ brains as they hear language, and then comparing those early responses with the words that those children learn as they get older, is helping explain not just how the early brain listens to language, but how listening shapes the early brain.

Recently, researchers at the University of Washington used measures of electrical brain responses to compare so-called monolingual infants, from homes in which one language was spoken, to bilingual infants exposed to two languages. Of course, since the subjects of the study, adorable in their infant-size EEG caps, ranged from 6 months to 12 months of age, they weren’t producing many words in any language.

Still, the researchers found that at 6 months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were uttered in the language they were used to hearing or in another language not spoken in their homes. By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.

For full article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html?_r=2


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Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:56
Member (2006)
Norwegian to English
+ ...
"Detecting" sounds May 6, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:

By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.


I think it is more likely that they could "detect" the sounds, but ignored them as irrelevant.

The claim is often made that we are initially only able to hear the sounds of a foreign language in terms of our native language(s). Yet if we cannot "detect" the sounds of a language we do not speak, how do we hear accents? A native speaker of English can detect the non-native sounds of a native French, Spanish, German, etc. speaker speaking English. A native English speaker hearing Dutch for the first time can detect the Dutch "g" and does not hear it as an English sound. A speaker of a language without click consonants is able to hear the click consonants of Xhosa.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:56
Hebrew to English
TOPIC STARTER
Agree May 6, 2012

I agree with you Michele, I think they are taking a few liberties with their conclusions.

I flagged the story because it's generally quite interesting, but I do question the way they make those kind of statements.

I think the problem with the above statement is the use of the word "detect". If it were true, as you point out, then no monolinguals would/should be able to "detect" foreign sounds as adults, but we do.

They might have been better saying something like "they stopped REACTING to those sounds not found in their own language"...which is probably closer to the truth. They 'detect' them but recognize them as irrelevant to their own language system so therefore disregard as irrevelvant "noise".

[Edited at 2012-05-06 22:54 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 04:56
Chinese to English
Detect is used in a technical sense May 7, 2012

What you say there is correct, but the point is that the sorting of sounds into phonemes (linguistically relevant ) and non phonemes/non-salient variation is automatic, subconscious and not subject to our control.
So when I pronounce a non English phoneme like a Chinese tone, they can physically perceive the sound , but as soon as they start attempting to understand the sounds as speech, automatic processes strip that phonetic information out of the signal, so the information contained in in the this non phoneme variation is lost.


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:56
French to English
+ ...
To try and clarify... May 7, 2012

Just to be clear. The idea, which actually isn't terribly new (though it's always good to be able to repeat a result and get new evidence for it) is that babies alter their PERCEPTION of the sound space according to the sounds of the language that they hear around them.

Effectively, it performs a kind of innate "clustering" on instances of the (language) sounds that it hears. So for example, if a baby hears a lots of different but similar 'high, front' vowels (i.e. vowel-like sounds with formants corresponding to high, front vowels), then it will gradually alter its perception to not 'take so much notice of' small differences in high, front vowels -- or in other words, it will "cluster" such vowels into one category in terms of how it perceives them.

[Of course, the baby doesn't actually have conscious knowledge of concepts of "high" or "front" -- to the baby, we're just talking about unconscious adjustments to its perception of formant frequencies.]

Now, in terms of what you should do about this information as a parent of a bilingual child... well not much, really as far as I can see. The research is intended to shed light on the mechanisms innate in babies. I don't think it's trying to suggest that parents can manipulate these mechanisms in some way, is it?


[Edited at 2012-05-07 01:30 GMT]


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Ditte Duclert  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 22:56
Member (2011)
English to Danish
+ ...
Deteting sounds May 8, 2012

Michele Fauble wrote:

Ty Kendall wrote:

By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.


I think it is more likely that they could "detect" the sounds, but ignored them as irrelevant.

The claim is often made that we are initially only able to hear the sounds of a foreign language in terms of our native language(s). Yet if we cannot "detect" the sounds of a language we do not speak, how do we hear accents? A native speaker of English can detect the non-native sounds of a native French, Spanish, German, etc. speaker speaking English. A native English speaker hearing Dutch for the first time can detect the Dutch "g" and does not hear it as an English sound. A speaker of a language without click consonants is able to hear the click consonants of Xhosa.



I think they might mean that the babies actually became unable to detect differences that did not exist in their language. In Finnish for example, there is little to no difference between p and b, and it takes a lot of practice for an adult to learn to hear those differences.

In some languages, such as Hindi, they also have more variations of p than English does, and a native speaker of English cannot hear the differences without a lot of practice. There is a difference between aspirated and plain p sounds, for example, and a non-native speaker would have a hard time detecting it. And as it seems this ability might have disappeared as early as 10-12 months of age, which is quite interesting.


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Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:56
Member (2006)
Norwegian to English
+ ...
Read my post again May 8, 2012

Ditte Duclert wrote:

In some languages, such as Hindi, they also have more variations of p than English does, and a native speaker of English cannot hear the differences without a lot of practice. There is a difference between aspirated and plain p sounds, for example, and a non-native speaker would have a hard time detecting it. And as it seems this ability might have disappeared as early as 10-12 months of age, which is quite interesting.


If a native Hindi speaker uses the wrong variant of 'p' in the wrong place when speaking English, a native English speaker will hear it as part of a non-native accent. A native Spanish speaker may have a hard time hearing the difference between English 'eat' and 'it', but if a native English speaker uses the vowel of 'it' instead of the vowel of 'eat' when speaking Spanish, the Spanish speaker will hear the difference. If we could not hear the difference between our native language sounds and the sounds of a foreign language, we would not hear an accent. And if we lost the ability to detect non-native sounds at 10-12 months of age, neither adults nor babies would ever be able to learn those sounds.



[Edited at 2012-05-08 22:01 GMT]


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