Language Learning Starts From The Cradle

Language Learning Starts from the Cradle

Studies suggest that the window of opportunity for language learning and sensitivity is very small.


AsianScientist (Aug. 19, 2014) – Babies are good listeners and can absorb information in their native language even before reaching their first birthday, according to a study published in the journal Developmental Science. Furthermore, for tots in a Mandarin-speaking environment, they are able to differentiate the intonations in the language.

“Early exposure really matters for children learning one language or two languages,” stressed Associate Professor Leher Singh, leader of the research from the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The team observed that from six months onwards, infants began to orientate towards their native tongue and can “tell” sounds that matter. This important process sets the stage for word learning, and is associated with later success in mastering a language.

As the babies are too young to answer questions, indirect methods were used in the laboratory to measure the young subjects’ language development, elaborated Prof. Leher. Preferential looking, the duration and gaze fixation to particular sounds and words indicated their ability in understanding or recognition. The NUS investigators found that by 18 months, the children already know how to register tone information when learning new Mandarin words.

In another experiment, preliminary data revealed that in nine-month-old babies, those in an English environment were observed to have lost their tone differentiation ability, when compared with their Mandarin-exposed peers. Data is still being compiled for subjects in a bilingual environment, said Ms. Charlene Fu, PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology who is involved in the work.

“The biggest take-home of this research is that the effects of language exposure are evident very early and very potent,” said Prof. Leher.

The results mean an early “window of opportunity” for language learning and sensitivity when infants are very young. They may lose some potential for learning if they are not exposed before one year old.

These findings, in combination with previous studies, imply that infants can negotiate quite complex rules in the tone system when exposed to a bilingual environment, she noted. Higher parental language mixing is associated with lower vocabularies in children when they become older. Finally, the quantity and quality of input such as live interaction and child-directed speech also help improve language acquisition in kids.

The article can be found at: Singh et al. (2014) Influences of Vowel and Tone Variation on Emergent Word Knowledge: a Cross-Linguistic Investigation.


Source: National University of Singapore.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.


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