Babies know that other languages are for communicating
OREANDA-NEWS. Infants recognize that speech in a language not their own is used for communication, a new study indicates.
The results offer new insights into how language is processed at a young age.
“By their first birthday, babies understand that foreign languages can communicate information between people, even though the babies themselves don’t understand the foreign language,” explains Athena Vouloumanos, an associate professor in New York University’s psychology deparment and the author of the study that appears in Cognition.
“This tells us that infants’ processing of formal aspects of language, such as speech sounds and word learning, is separate from infants’ processing of communicative aspects of language—specifically, the transferring of information,” Vouloumanos says.
It has long been established that infants understand that speech in their native language allows speakers to communicate. Less clear is whether or not this understanding is limited to their native language—does it extend to non-native languages with which infants have no experience?
To address this question, Vouloumanos conducted a series of experiments in which 12-month-old infants viewed human actors communicating in multiple ways. An observer recorded the infants’ responses—such as their gaze. Gaze length is a commonly used measurement for spotting infants’ comprehension of language and concepts.
In the experiments, the infants saw an actor, the Communicator, repeatedly select one of two objects. When the Communicator could no longer reach the target but a second player, a Recipient, could, the Communicator vocalized a nonsense phrase either in English (infants’ native language), Spanish (rhythmically different), or Russian (structurally different), or hummed (a non-speech vocalization). The infants had not been exposed to Spanish or Russian before.