Multilingual or not, infants learn words best when it sounds like home

You sound like Mommy
Bilingual and monolingual infants learn words best from speakers typical of their language environments

From International Journal of Behavioral Development

Growing up in a multilingual home has many advantages, but many parents worry that exposure to multiple languages might delay language acquisition. New research could now lay some of these multilingual myths to rest, thanks to this revealing study that shows both monolingual and bilingual infants learn a new word best from someone with a language background that matches their own. The findings reveal that both monolingual and bilingual babies are highly tuned to their home language environments.    The results contradict hypotheses that bilingual children are better able to deal with varied accents than monolinguals and that monolinguals have more solid word representations than bilinguals. The results have strong implications for other studies of bilingual infants and children, the authors say.


Previous research indicates that monolingual infants have difficulty learning minimal pairs (i.e., words differing by one phoneme) produced by a speaker uncharacteristic of their language environment and that bilinguals might share this difficulty. To clearly reveal infants’ underlying phonological representations, we minimized task demands by embedding target words in naming phrases, using a fully crossed, between-subjects experimental design. We tested 17-month-old French-English bilinguals’ (N = 30) and English monolinguals’ (N = 31) learning of a minimal pair (/k∊m/ – /g∊m/) produced by an adult bilingual or monolingual. Infants learned the minimal pair only when the speaker matched their language environment. This vulnerability to subtle changes in word pronunciation reveals that neither monolingual nor bilingual 17-month-olds possess fully generalizable phonological representations.

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Article details
Special section: Language development in multilingual environments:
Christopher Fennell and Krista Byers-Heinlein
You sound like Mommy: Bilingual and monolingual infants learn words best from speakers typical of their language environments
International Journal of Behavioral Development July 2014 38: 309-316, doi:10.1177/0165025414530631






linguistics child development

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