Do bilingual children learn language differently?
Growing up in a multilingual home has its advantages, but many parents worry that exposing children to multiple languages actually delays language acquisition.
Thanks to new research from Concordia University and the University of Ottawa, however, that myth can be laid to rest. A study recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development shows infants raised in monolingual and bilingual households to be equally capable of learning new words — as long as they are taught by caregivers with a language background that matches their own.
To understand the differences between monolingual and bilingual word learning, researchers taught 61 English monolingual and English-French bilingual 17-month-olds two similar-sounding words they invented to describe separate items: “kem,” denoting a crown-shaped object made from clay, and “gem,” denoting a molecule from a chemistry set.
Babies heard the words from either monolingual or bilingual adults. This meant that for half the babies, the adult matched the baby’s language-learning environment: monolinguals heard a monolingual adult, and bilinguals heard a bilingual adult. For the other half, the adult did not match their language-learning environment: monolinguals heard a bilingual adult, and bilinguals heard a monolingual adult.
To determine whether children had actually learned the words, the researchers presented them with an incorrect pairing (e.g. “kem” paired with the molecule) and gauged their reactions. Babies who had learned the words were surprised when the wrong word was used, and stared at the mislabelled object for longer than when a correct label was presented.
“We found that both monolingual and bilingual children could learn the words, but only from a speaker who matched their language-learning environment,” says study co-author Krista Byers-Heinlein, a psychology professor at Concordia and member of the Centre for Research in Human Development.
“All infants, regardless of whether they are learning one or two languages, learn words best when listening to people who sound like their primary caregivers,” says the study’s other co-author, Christopher Fennell, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa.
In other words, there is no overall bilingual advantage or bilingual delay — only a difference in the speakers from whom babies find it easier to learn words.
“Our findings also contradict hypotheses that bilingual children are better able to deal with varied accents than monolinguals and that monolinguals have a clearer understanding of what words mean than bilinguals,” Byers-Heinlein says.
“All babies show similar strengths and weaknesses in their early word-learning abilities.”
Download a free copy of “You sound like Mommy: bilingual and monolingual infants learn words best from speakers typical of their language environments” from the latest issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Development, published by SAGE.