I have summarized and commented the findings of an interesting article “Speech Discrimination in Bilingual Infants” in Psychology Today by François Grosjean, Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics, Neuchâtel University, Switzerland. Dr Grosjean is famous for his work on the holistic view of bilingualism, language mode, the complementarity principle, the processing of code-switching and borrowing, as well as the bilingualism of the Deaf. He is the author of the book “Bilingual: Life and Reality” where he talks about myths and strategies to raise bilingual children.
Bilingual infants are particularly good at discriminating the sounds of their different languages in their first year as long as the languages are acquired through live human exposure. But this does not mean that bilingualism needs to start at such a precocious age. For the majority of bilingual children, it begins at a later age without any problem.
Can any type of exposure to two languages (through human interaction, DVDs, audio input, etc.) will encourage infants to develop the phonetic categories of their languages ? University of Washington researcher Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues replied negatively based on a study they undertook.They exposed 9 month-old American infants to twelve sessions with Chinese native-speakers who read and played with them in Mandarin. A second group of similar infants received the same amount of Mandarin language exposure but only through DVDs and audio input.
The results were clear. Whereas the live human exposure infants acquired the Mandarin phonetic contrast, the second group did not. This shows that phonetic learning doesn’t rely only on raw auditory sensory information.