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Babies’ Eye for Language

June 28, 2007

Babies can see the differences between languages, even without hearing them.


Infant language intuition. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Babies as young as four months can tell their native language from a foreign tongue—even if they can’t hear it. This according to a study led by psychologists Whitney Weikum and Janet Werker of the University of British Columbia in Canada. They showed babies silent videos of bilingual adults, speaking alternatively in English and French.

WHITNEY WEIKUM (University of British Columbia):
So we found that at four and six months, babies from the home where only English is spoken can tell the difference between the languages. But their ability to tell the difference between the languages declined by eight months of age.

It’s not yet clear whether this is merely a phase of normal language development, or the result of an evolutionary advantage for babies who could recognize other members of their community. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.