Infants Display Surprising Intuition at Identifying Languages

Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, have demonstrated that 11-month old infants can associate the words and phrases they hear with the ethnicity of the speaker.

The research was carried out in Vancouver, where 9% of the population speak Cantonese. Researchers played English and Cantonese audios to English-learning Causcasian infants  and showed them pictures of   faces of people of Asian and Caucasian descent. They discovered that when the infants heard Cantonese, they would look more to the Asian faces, and when they heard English, they would look to both the Caucasian and Asian faces.

“This indicates that they have already learned that in Vancouver, both Caucasians and Asians are likely to speak English, but only Asians are likely to speak Cantonese,” noted UBC psychology professor Janet Werker, the study’s senior author.

According to Lillian May, a psychologist and the lead author of the study, “Findings suggest that by 11 months, infants are making connections between languages and ethnicities based on the individuals they encounter in their environments. In learning about language, infants are doing more than picking up sounds and sentences — they also learn about the speakers of language.”

The study was published April 22 by Developmental Psychobiology.

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