Life as a Bilingual: Speech Discrimination in Bilingual Infants-Psychology Today

Soviet Inlay: Multiracial children. A kinderga...

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.

According to the authors, the presence of a live person interacting with an infant generates interpersonal social cues that attract the infant’s attention and motivate learning.

Based on these interesting findings, can we extrapolate and answer the following questions ?:

Can we apply same conclusions to adults learning a new language ?

Can we really learn intercultural communication in books ?

Beside languages, can we learn any new  topic via online teaching and E-learning ?

Related article: Does Raising Bilingual Children Make Them Smarter ?

About Anne Egros, Executive, Career and Expat Life Coach

Zest and Zen is a blog about Expat Life Challenges, Global Leadership, Intercultural Communication, Health and Wellness, Nutrition, Change Psychology, Life Transitions
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9 Responses to Life as a Bilingual: Speech Discrimination in Bilingual Infants-Psychology Today

  1. Dawn says:

    I agree with most of the comments. I wish I had such a rich experiences of travel and language. Although I have recently began teaching my kids Spanish, we too need more that one medium to learn. Not only do we learn different, but I agree, that having a person around us, would encourage the and re enforce what we are learning. Thank for the article.

  2. Pingback: understanding metaphorical parables like the tree of life, the eyes to see and the ears to hear « the magic of language blog: partnering with reality – by JR Fibonacci

  3. Anne,

    I so admire when parents can raise their children to be bi-lingual.

    I don’t believe that language can be learned by books only. We have to do, practice, communicate. As someone that was involved with intercultural education – specifically language, I think it is a combination of books, activities, speaking, and watching that puts the entire puzzle together.

    One of my exchange kids is raising her children to be bi-lingual (tri-lingual, actually). One parent speaks English only, the other parent speaks the other language exclusively. As the children get older, they are able to ease up from this regimented formula. So far, they have been successful. The languages: English, Russian, Lesge.

    As technology evolves, we have more and more opportunity to nail it. I hope others in this world realize that.


    • Hi Keri, Actually raising a bilingual child like my son when both parents speak one language at home (French in our case) and study and live in an English speaking country, it is quite natural and easy. We did not do anything special although he can read books in both languages and have a very well developed vocabulary in both. He has a third language very well developed that works in any language : the “emotional reading and empathy listening”. I think this gift is part innate part due to the fact that he has lived exclusively abroad all his life. At 10 year old he lived in 3 different cities in the U.S. 3 years in Japan and 2 years in Belgium

  4. Dorien says:

    I learned English, French and German in high school in the Netherlands where my native language was Dutch. Learning at age 12, I didn’t even ‘get’ what I was learning until a few months in. The moments it clicked were on a trip to Germany and Berlin where I stayed with a host family for 10 days and it was ‘sink or swim’ (or rather: ‘talk or listen’) Then when I was 18 and moved to the US, I quickly and effectively learned English and my learning curve was much smaller. Being immersed in the language in all aspects was what made me learn fast. I read the paper, talked with people on the train, watched Sesame Street, attend classes and shopped for food. All opportunities came with a mandatory speaking part and the interaction and repetition is what made me learn.

    • What a fantastic experience Dorien, I agree, total; immersion is the best method to learn a new language. I also think it is never too late to learn a new language even if you never be bilingual like kids who acquired 2 languages almost simultaneously.

  5. I’d say that we could apply the same conclusions to adults learning a new language. While online teaching and e-learning has its place in terms of convenience and accessibility,

    • Thanks Mi for your comment I think the ideal for adults is to combine both in person and online teaching or on the phone. The infants in the study of course don’t have enough experiences to have elaborated processes of recognition of sounds of words and interpretation of the meaning. So adults may get enough clues to learn a new language via a DVD even if a person is not present.

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