Babies retain their early exposure to foreign languages

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Babies may be better at language than scientists thought: A small study of people adopted as babies suggests infants under 6 months old can grasp crucial abstract information from their native language . Moreover, they seem to store this information for years even if they don’t hear their native language in the meantime.

In the new study, published today (June 26) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied Dutch-speaking adults who had been adopted as babies. They found that these people, who had moved from South Korea to the Netherlands as babies, learned the sounds unique to the Korean language better, compared to Dutch speakers without Korean experience. There was no difference in language understanding between adoptees who came to the Netherlands before 6 months of age and those who left Korea as toddlers. Both groups learned Korean-specific sounds faster than the Dutch-speaking control group, the researchers found.

“We first showed that the knowledge retained by early adoptees was as useful as the knowledge of older adoptees,” said researchers Jiyoun Choi, from Hanyang University in Seoul, and Anne Cutler, from the Institute. Max Planck of Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. wrote in an email to Live Science. “And second, we showed that knowledge is abstract in nature.” [That’s Incredible! 9 Brainy Baby Abilities]

Learn a language

Previously, researchers knew that by the age of 6 months, babies can distinguish a wider range of sounds than adults. But around the age of 9 months, babies lose the ability to detect sounds that are not important in their native language. For example, native Korean speakers might have trouble distinguishing the “r” and “l” sounds in English, while a native English speaker would be confused by a series of “p”, “t”, and “k” sounds. which have more variations in Korean than in English.

These results have been interpreted to mean that babies do not know their native phonology, or the abstract rules governing the sounds of their language, until after the age of 6 months. (However, some studies show that babies can tell if a sound is in their first language when they are only a few days old.) There had never been direct evidence that babies lacked this abstract knowledge. , Cutler and Choi told Live Science; it was still only an inference.

“A lot of people have found that [idea] very unsatisfactory, for a while,” they wrote. “It just wasn’t clear how to find the necessary evidence.”

Researchers found the answer in adoptees from Korea. When the intercountry adoption program between Korea and the Netherlands opened, it started slowly, and many adopted children were over a year old, Cutler and Choi said. As the program became established, younger babies began to come in greater numbers, in part due to adoptive parents’ preferences.

As a result, the researchers were able to recruit a group of 29 Dutch-speaking adults who had arrived in the Netherlands either before the age of 6 months or after the age of 17 months. They matched this group to a control group of Dutch speakers who had never been exposed to Korean, and then tested both groups on their ability to distinguish voiceless alveolar stops, a kind of articulate sound from the air cut. and without the vibration of the vocal cords. Dutch has only one of these types of sounds, a “t” sound, while Korean has three.

abstract thought

Before the training, the adoptees and the non-adopted control group were also poor at distinguishing Korean sounds. Over the course of a week and a half of learning, however, the adoptees proved to be quicker to pick up on the differences. They were significantly better at distinguishing sounds in the middle of the study, compared to those who had not been exposed to Korean.

Once the researchers took into account other factors that could have affected the results, such as people’s current age and gender, there was no difference in language learning abilities between the adoptees. who moved to the Netherlands as toddlers and those who moved to the Netherlands. the Netherlands in early childhood.

This finding indicates that even as very young babies, infants can detect abstract patterns in the language they hear around them.

“At 3 to 6 months, there is abstract phonological knowledge,” Cutler and Choi told Live Science.

In a study of the same data published earlier this year, researchers found that this long-buried knowledge also gave adoptees a boost not only in recognizing but also in pronouncing Korean language sounds.

“We expect there will be a new wave of research into what three to six month old infants can do!” Cutler and Choi wrote. Researchers are currently working on various projects to study how sound perception and sound production are linked, how adults learn second languages, and how infants’ brains process sounds during the first year of life.

Original article on Live Science.

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