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Babies babble bilingually

Babies can babble in two languages, finds a study from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Washington.

When does speech production become language specific – could it begin before infants produce words? To answer this question, Sundara et al recruited 30 one- year-old babies, 20 from monolingual English homes and 10 from homes bilingual in English and Spanish. Furthermore, 10 of the monolingual babies were exposed to five hours’ interaction in Spanish.

The three groups of 10 babies were then recorded as they interacted with speakers of English and Spanish. The resulting babbling was coded into ‘utterances’ – strings of vowels and syllables separated by at least 70 milliseconds of silence.

The coded utterances were transcribed to give an account of the prosody apparent in the babbling in terms, for example, of the use of multiple syllables and resonant vowels. This coding was carried out blind by transcribers with no knowledge of the language the infants were exposed to.

Results showed that both the bilingual and the monolingual but previously exposed babies matched their babbling utterances to the prosody of the speaker they were interacting with. For example, babies produced more multisyllable utterances when responding to Spanish than when responding to English. Monolingual babies who had not been previously exposed to Spanish did not match their babbling when speakers switched from English to Spanish.

This suggests that even before the first recognisable words are spoken, babies are altering their speech production in response to language – and it is never too early to start exposing a baby to a second language. The researchers warn, though, that the effect needs the feedback from real social interaction rather than exposure to recorded language.


Image courtesy of PIXABAY
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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