Hearing two languages in the womb puts infant on road to bilingualism

Updated: Feb 17, 2010, 00:00 AM IST

Washington: Mothers conversing in two different languages during pregnancy can cause their newborn kids to develop bilingualism, a new study suggests.

The research, conducted by psychological scientists Krista Byers-Heinlein and Janet F. Werker from the University of British Columbia, and Tracey Burns of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in France, has appeared in the Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

For the study, two groups of newborns were tested in these experiments: English monolinguals (whose mums spoke only English during pregnancy) and Tagalog-English bilinguals (whose mums spoke both Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines, and English regularly during pregnancy).

The researchers used a method known as “high-amplitude sucking-preference procedure” to study the infants’ language preferences. This method capitalizes on the newborns’ sucking reflex — increased sucking indicates interest in a stimulus.

In the first experiment, infants heard 10 minutes of speech, with every minute alternating between English and Tagalog. Results demonstrated that English monolingual infants were more interested in English than Tagalog — they exhibited increased sucking behavior when they heard English than when they heard Tagalog being spoken. However, bilingual infants had an equal preference for both English and Tagalog.

To test if bilingual infants are able to discriminate between their two languages, infants listened to sentences being spoken in one of the languages until they lost interest. Then, they either heard sentences in the other language or heard sentences in the same language, but spoken by a different person. Infants exhibited increased sucking when they heard the other language being spoken. Their sucking did not increase if they heard additional sentences in the same language.

These results suggest that bilingual infants, along with monolingual infants, are able to make a difference between the two languages, providing a mechanism from the first moments of life that helps ensure bilingual infants do not confuse their two languages.

According to the researchers, “Monolingual newborns’ preference for their single native language directs listening attention to that language” and, “Bilingual newborns’ interest in both languages helps ensure attention to, and hence further learning about, each of their languages.”