Babies Can Differentiate Between Two Languages

Category: Education/Family


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. bilingual / baɪˈlɪŋ gwəl / (adj) – able to speak two languages well

    The bilingual professor switches between English and Spanish.

  2. tell (something) apart / tɛl əˈpɑrt / (idiom) – to know the difference between two things

    As a native speaker of English, she can tell different English accents apart.

  3. process / ˈprɒs ɛs / (v) – to put pieces of information together

    The confused student could not process the lesson.

  4. diameter / daɪˈæm ɪ tər / (n) – the size of a circle

    The average diameter of the human eye’s pupil is around two to four millimeters.

  5. dilate / daɪˈleɪt / (v) – to become wider

    The cat’s eyes dilated as the room became darker.


Read the text below.

Babies can distinguish one language from another, research has found.

Findings of a study by Princeton University revealed that bilingual babies as young as 20 months can tell the two languages they know apart as they listen. For instance, French-English babies can recognize that the word ‘dog’ and its French equivalent ‘chien’ are from two different languages. This shows that the babies are efficient in processing the languages they encounter.

The discovery stemmed from a series of experiments conducted among 24 French-English bilingual babies in Montreal, Canada. To test the babies’ ability to process two languages, the researchers showed them pairs of images featuring objects labeled in both English and French. Then, the researchers spoke in sentences using both languages.

Data showed that the babies did not display signs of confusion while looking at the photos and listening to the researchers. This observation was based on an eye-tracking system that measures pupil diameter, which is an indicator of brain activity. The babies’ eye pupils dilated when the languages were switched, which meant that they instantly understood what they saw and heard.

A similar study by the University of Kansas found that unborn babies could already tell the difference between two languages even while inside their mothers’ wombs. Results of the study, which involved 24 pregnant women in the United States, showed that there was a change in the unborn babies’ heart rates upon processing the Japanese language, which was foreign to them. This finding implies that language development already takes place even before birth.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

• Do you think that bilingual babies have more advantages compared to monolingual babies? Why or why not?
• What strategies can be employed to enhance babies’ language development?

Discussion B

• Apart from language development, what other skills can babies acquire? Discuss.
• How can babies acquire these skills? Explain.