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Babies unfazed by language switching.

Bilingual babies are not confused when individual speakers switch languages, according to new research from Esther Schott and colleagues at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

Families raising bilingual children often try to assign languages to particular speakers (the “one-person-one-language” approach), or at least have individuals speak consistently in one language for spells of time or in certain contexts. This accords with popular wisdom that children associate languages with the speaker and will be confused if they keep switching languages.

To test this, Schott and colleagues carried out two studies with 84 monolingual and bilingual infants aged 5, 12 and 18 months to see if they distinguished between different speakers and the languages they spoke. This builds on previous research showing that even new-borns can distinguish between two different spoken languages.

Bilingual infants were routinely exposed to at least 25% English or French, while monolingual infants were exposed to at least 90% English or French. For the studies, infants sat on their parent’s lap facing a screen with an eye tracker to record data on eye gaze. Infants then listened to passages from “The Little Prince” in either French or English with eight familiarization trials and four test trials. In the familiarization phase, the two speakers, one male and one female, consistently spoke in either English or French. In the test trials, two trials had the same person-language pairings but in the other two trials the languages were switched.

To test whether audio-visual cues were more influential than just hearing the spoken language, in the first study, infants looked at a field of flowers while listening to the trials, but in the second study, they saw a picture of the speaker.

An analysis of the infants’ eye gaze including pupil dilation, which can reflect cognitive processing, showed no response to language switching from either monolingual or bilingual infants, whether given auditory or audio-visual input.

Previous research has established that infants can easily discriminate between English and French and between male and female speakers – but the lack of response implies no cognitive incongruity or confusion – was experienced during the language switching.

REFERENCE

  • Liu Schott, E., Tamayo, M. P. and Byers-Heinlein, K. (2023) Keeping track of language: Can monolingual and bilingual infants associate a speaker with the language they speaker? Inf Child Dev e2403 https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.2403
Image courtesy of Library
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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