Babies can tell which sounds matter by age 1

There is an early window of opportunity for language learning and sensitivity when infants are very young, says Leher Singh. "The biggest take-home of this research is that the effects of language exposure are evident very early and very potent." (Credit: iStockphoto)

Babies can absorb information in their native language even before their first birthday, new research shows. In addition, toddlers in a Mandarin-speaking environment can differentiate intonations by the time they turn 18 months.

“Early exposure really matters for children learning one language or two languages,” says Leher Singh, associate professor and leader of the research from the psychology department at National University of Singapore.

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For a new study published in Developmental Science, researchers observed that from six months onward, infants began to orientate towards their native tongue and can “tell” sounds that matter.

This important process sets the stage for word learning, and is associated with later success in mastering a language.

Because babies are too young to answer questions, the researchers used indirect methods in the laboratory to measure the young subjects’ language development, Leher says. Preferential looking, the duration and gaze fixation to particular sounds and words, indicated the babies’ ability to understand.

The study on bilingual toddlers also shows that by 18 months, children already know how to register tone information when learning new Mandarin words.

Window of opportunity

In another experiment, preliminary data reveals that nine-month-old babies in an English environment lose their tone differentiation ability as compared with Mandarin-exposed babies of the same age.

Data is still being compiled for subjects in a bilingual environment, says Charlene Fu, a PhD candidate in the psychology department.

“The biggest take-home of this research is that the effects of language exposure are evident very early and very potent,” Leher says.

The results indicate there is an early window of opportunity for language learning and sensitivity when infants are very young and children may lose this potential for learning if they are not exposed before one year old.

These findings, in combination with previous studies, imply that infants can negotiate quite complex rules in the tone system when exposed to a bilingual environment, she notes.

Source: National University of Singapore