Babies’ brains are equipped to handle more than one language

UBC Psychology Professor and 2018 Killam Prize winner Dr. Janet Werker sat down with BOLD blog to talk about her research on language acquisition in infancy.

Language learning begins much earlier than one might think, and numerous factors play an essential role in that process. Janet Werker has spent years investigating how children acquire language.

Sabine Gysi: How early in a child’s life does language learning begin?

Janet Werker: Language development starts long before the first words are spoken. Already at birth, babies show a preference for the voices and even the language that they heard in utero. The speech processing system is already becoming attuned to the properties of the native language. Listening, in early infancy, is essential for acquiring the syntax, sounds, and other aspects of language, enabling the child to understand and ultimately to speak.

SG: There is a widespread belief that a toddler needs to hear as many words as possible. Is this the most important aspect of language acquisition?

JW: Certainly babies can’t learn their native language if they don’t hear it. We’re born ready to learn a language, but we have to be exposed to it.

Many people do indeed focus on the number of words that children hear. There is a lot of research on the 30 million word gap and the need to ensure that babies hear enough words to build a vocabulary that will enable them to succeed in society. But that approach to language acquisition has two limitations. First, vocabulary is only a part of language; sentence structure and rhythm are also important, and many other things have to be in place before babies can acquire a vocabulary. Second, there is now a lot of research showing that it’s not just about the number of words that babies and young children hear, but about whether they hear them in contingent interactions. When parents are attentive, engaged, and label that which the baby is looking at (or first draw their attention to it) in a contingent fashion, that is when babies best learn words.

Those are moments best suited to word learning. Just inundating a child with a large number of words is not going to give them vocabulary. Seeing when and how language is used, understanding the meaning of words in context, and experiencing the power of being able to communicate with someone – these are the factors that really support language acquisition in general, and vocabulary development in particular.


This article was written by Sabine Gysi.

It was originally published by BOLD Blog. Read the full article.