Babies can learn link between language and ethnicity

The findings show that at an early age, infants are attending to and learning from their environment. Photo: Sav Nijeboer/Infant Studies Centre

Eleven-month-old infants can learn to associate the language they hear with ethnicity, recent research from UBC Psychology suggests.

The study, conducted in Vancouver and published in April in Developmental Psychobiology, found that 11-month-old infants looked more at the faces of people of Asian descent versus those of Caucasian descent when hearing Cantonese versus English—but not when hearing Spanish.

Psychology professor Dr. Janet Werker, co-director of the UBC Language Sciences Initiative, and Language Sciences member Dr. Lillian May, a lecturer in the department of psychology, discuss what this finding means and what babies are learning from those around them.

What does this finding show?

LM: Our findings suggest that by 11 months, infants are making connections between languages and ethnicities based on the individuals they encounter in their environments. We played English-learning infants of Caucasian ancestry sentences of both English and Cantonese and showed them pictures of people of Caucasian descent, and of Asian descent. We found that when they heard Cantonese, they looked more at the Asian faces than when they were hearing English.

JW: Babies are really discerning. The effect was found only when babies were listening to Cantonese. When they heard English sentences, Vancouver infants looked equally to Asian as to Caucasian faces, indicating they have already learned that in Vancouver, both Caucasians and Asians are likely to speak English, but only Asians are likely to speak Cantonese. 

Why did you test with Spanish as well as Cantonese?

LM: We wanted to determine whether the association between Cantonese language and Asian faces we observed was due to a specific pairing infants learn from their environment, or whether infants may just have a bias to pair together any unfamiliar language with any unfamiliar ethnicity. We conducted a second study where we played English-learning, Caucasian infants sentences of English and Spanish and showed them the same pictures of Caucasian and Asian faces. Here, we found that infants looked similarly to faces of both ethnicities with both languages. Taken together, this would suggest that infants are indeed picking up on specific language-ethnicity pairings, likely based upon those faces and languages they encounter.

Why is this finding important? What does it suggest?

LM: This finding shows that at an early age, infants are attending to and learning from their environment. In learning about language, infants are doing more than picking up sounds and sentences—they also learn about the speakers of language.

JW: The ability to link language and ethnicity might help babies with language acquisition. We are now probing this possibility. For example, does a bilingual Chinese-English baby expect Chinese words from a Southeast Asian speaker and English words from a Caucasian speaker? Our preliminary results indicate that indeed, babies are using their expectations about language and ethnicity as another source of information in language learning. 

What does this mean for parents?

LM: For parents, I think the big takeaway is that even before babies are talking, they are paying a lot of attention to the language and speakers of language around them. Infants who are exposed to a diverse range of languages and ethnicities will likely pick up more about the relationships between languages and language speakers.

JW: Babies are learning so much about language—even about its social use—long before they produce the first word. Our work should comfort parents in letting them know that babies who grow up in a multicultural, multilingual society such as Vancouver learn about that diversity and use it to help—rather than hinder—their language acquisition. The link between speaker characteristics and language is something no one has to teach babies. They learn it all on their own.

This Q&A was originally posted on UBC News.