Babies can spot languages on facial clues alone
- Babies can spot languages on facial clues alone
- 19:00 24 May 2007
- NewScientist.com news service
- Nora Schultz
Young babies can discriminate between different languages just by looking at an adult's face, even if they do not hear a single spoken word. And babies who grow up bilingual can do this for longer than monolingual infants. The work suggests that visual information helps to tell languages apart.
"This supports the idea that infants come prepared to learn multiple languages and to discriminate them both auditorily and visually," says Whitney Weikum from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who discovered babies' keen eye for speech. "Looking at a face may help identify speakers of your native language."
Weikum and her colleagues, showed babies videos of adults speaking various sentences, but with the sound turned off. The infants soon got bored, but as soon as speakers switched from English to French, they noticed the change and watched with renewed interest.
Can you tell in which of these videos - video A (2.4 MB, requires Quicktime player) or video B (2.6 MB, requires Quicktime player) - English is being spoken, and which is French? The answer is at the bottom of the page.
Laura-Ann Petitto, who researches language and child development at Dartmouth College in Hanover, US, previously studied visual language perception in deaf babies who were learning sign language (see Babies babble in sign language too). She is excited by Weikum's results: "Never did we dream that young hearing babies also use visual cues in this stunning way."
A good eye for different languages appears to be especially important if you need to tell them apart regularly. At eight months old, bilingual babies could still see the switch happen, but their monolingual peers stopped noticing it after the age of six months.
"This shows us how a baby's language development is closely related to their learning environment," says Weikum. "Only if they are exposed to more than one language, do they remain able to discriminate the languages visually."
However, Weikum does not think that parents who are keen to help their babies learn to speak need to introduce a second language before the visual discrimination ability disappears, or start using visually exaggerated speech. "Our study does not show visual speech cues help infants learn languages, only to tell them apart. Parents should just continue talking to their babies in fun, engaging conversations."
The researchers now want to discover more about how bilingual babies maintain and take advantage of visual discrimination, and find out what the precise visual cues are in a speaker's face that help a baby to identify different languages.
(Answer: Video A is French, video B is English)
Journal reference: Science (vol 316, p 1159)