The Extraordinary Linguistic Talents
of Babies

by Evgeniya Mauryutina,
Neurolinguist, Carousel Curriculum Team, and Russian Teacher

It has long been a well-known fact that children learn languages faster than adults, and effortlessly. There is evidence that in order to attain native-like proficiency in a language and speak with minimum or no accent, it is important to start as early as possible, mainly during the so-called “critical period” of acquiring languages. In fact, research, which has also been supported by brain study,  shows that exposure to a second language during the first 5 years of life produces the best possible outcomes for full acquisition of a second language.

Knowing this, we can’t help but ask ourselves, how early should children start learning languages? New research shows that children are capable of learning from significantly earlier stages than was previously thought. In fact, as early as infancy. It has been proved that the first year of life represents a window of unique language learning abilities. An infant’s brain exhibits high neuroplasticity, when the brain can change and new neuron connections can be created. From 0-12 months infants have a special gift of discriminating almost all phonetic units of the world’s languages, something that adults are not capable of. This is important for language learning because it is greatly dependent on sound processing. All the world’s languages are comprised of 800 sounds, and each language uses about 40 language-specific sounds, which make that language differ from any other. At birth all babies can discriminate all 800 sounds. For example, in Japanese /r/ and /l/ are combined in one phoneme /l/, while in English, on the other hand, the difference is obvious, as in lake-rake. Infants can discriminate this difference. Scientists call babies at this age “citizens of the world.” However, closer to their second year they become what is called “culture-bound listeners,” which means they figure out which sounds they hear most and become accustomed to them, and thus, their ability to discriminate sounds declines.  

However, studies show that foreign language intervention in infants at about 6-12 months old can reverse the decline of foreign language phonetic perception. Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl, a distinguished researcher in early language and brain development, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Science (I- LABS) at the University of Washington, says that “Babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created [and] infants’ learning is time-sensitive. Their brains will never be better at learning a second language than they are between 0 and 3 years of age. I-LABS’ new work shows we can create an early bilingual learning environment for dual-language learners in an educational setting, and in one hour per day, infants can ignite the learning of a second language earlier and much easier than we previously thought. This is doable for everybody.” According to Dr. Kuhl, babies who are raised listening to two or more languages stay more “open” to the sounds, which is extremely beneficial for their brains. It is especially important because phonological awareness skills have been associated with future success in learning how to read. Phonetic learning is viewed as “the pathway to language” because it reliably predicts many subsequent stages in language acquisition, such as lexical and grammatical growth. Thus, the latest research demonstrates that not are only young children capable of learning, it is the most advantageous time for them to acquire languages.

From the neurological point of view, during a child’s first years of life, the brain exhibits extraordinary neuroplasticity. Important neural circuitry is established during this period, and these connections lay the foundation for future language learning. More specifically, new brain circuits are shaped and new synaptic connections (connections between neurons) are built in response to new experience. Since at this stage the infant’s brain is prone to changing quickly, research points out that it is essential to expose a child to a variety of positive experiences, such as talking, cuddling, reading, singing and playing in different environments. Not only is it beneficial for acquiring the language of their culture, but it also builds a foundation for developing attention, cognition, memory, and language and literacy, as well as social-emotional, sensory, and motor skills that will help them reach their potential later on. In terms of language, it has been proven that infants are capable of acquiring two and more languages at the same time and will mentally separate the properties of the languages when exposed to them early. Additionally, neuroimaging shows that children exposed to language before 5 years have higher brain tissue density in areas related to language, memory, and attention.

Another question that might arise is, if my child is so sensitive to sounds, why don’t I just play a recording or put on a TV with a foreign channel? Research shows that infants learn only through social interaction, live exposure, and “infant-directed speech.” “Infant-directed speech,” or “parentese,” is characterized as high-pitched, slower tempo speech with exaggerated intonation, and has been proven to be most effective for infants, contributing the development of future language learning skills. Moreover, experiments show that American babies who were exposed to sessions of Mandarin with a live instructor showed results in acquiring a language, while babies exposed to the same Mandarin speakers via audio-visual and audio-only recordings did not show any results and failed to learn. Thus, social interaction plays a huge role in learning a language on the phonetic level and significantly facilitates the language learning process in general. Infants rely on sensorimotor connections when listening to speech. Studies involving eye-tracking techniques also showed that infants focus more on the mouth of a speaker than their eyes. Further, a link has been discovered between phonetic learning and the shift of the gaze between a speaker and an object of conversation. This proves that social interaction, not TV or radio, boosts their ability to learn languages. The experiments showed that as little as one hour a day sufficed for children to improve their comprehension and production of a foreign language and the effects remained for a prolonged period of time. Ferjan Ramirez, a research scientist working with Dr. Kuhl, says, “With the right science-based approach that combines the features known to grow children’s language, it is possible to give very young children the opportunity to start learning a second language, with only one hour of play per day in an early education setting. This has big implications for how we think about foreign-language learning.” It proves the fact that the nature and quality of foreign language programs for infants and toddlers play an important role in learning.

In a modern globalized world, knowing two or more languages has evident social, economic, and even cognitive advantages. The benefits of being bilingual have been studied in more detail in the last few decades. It has been proved that bilingual speakers have the following advantages:  specific cognitive abilities, attention, cognitive flexibility when given a problem to solve, creativity, and increased language awareness. From the neurological perspective, as we age we lose our brain plasticity, however, a constant stimulation, such as speaking another language helps to strengthen the neuron connections. The main findings suggest that infants’ brains depend on input to develop and the experience they receive alters the course of brain structure and function early in development. Moreover, the amount and the variety of experiences can maximize plasticity during the critical period of an infant’s development and predict future language and literacy success. Although some of the neural pathways that are laid within the first year of life may be reversible or established later in life, others are not. For languages, and especially for their sound systems, early exposure is essential. The best strategy for optimizing your baby’s linguistic abilities, then, is to expose her/him to languages as early as possible.

Another question that might arise is can my child reap all the benefits of bilingualism by being involved in an immersion program? Bilingual children show advantages in metalinguistic awareness, more specifically the knowledge of different aspects of language such as sounds, syntax, meaning, etc., which also plays a huge role in literacy development later on.  Researchers studied children involved in immersion programs in respect to their cognitive advantages over monolingual children. The results showed that the immersion children outperformed their monolingual peers in a number of tasks involving morphological awareness, syntactic awareness, and verbal fluency. The authors concluded that the advantages previously reported for early bilingual children could already be detected in children learning another language in an immersion program. It also proves that immersion experience helps to produce cognitive benefits associated with early bilingualism.


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