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Toddlers Can Learn Foreign Tongues

Study finds they can distinguish language patterns

THURSDAY, Aug. 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Can your baby learn a foreign language?

It might be easier than you think: New research suggests children as young as 17 months can gain some rudimentary understanding of Russian in as little as two minutes.

The babies, of course, are far from ready to order a meal in Moscow. However, their quickness at noticing patterns suggests humans learn the structure of language at about the same time as they discern the meaning of words, says LouAnn Gerken, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona.

"It gives us a new way to look at babies," she says. "They're lying there and figuring out these patterns. They're linguists and mathematicians."

In a series of studies, Gerken has examined how infants learn language. As parents know, children can have wildly different levels of comprehension at young ages.

"In some kids, we start to see evidence of word formation sometime around 12 months, and rudimentary sentences at about a year and a half," she says. "But that varies enormously across kids. You can see some kids who don't produce their first word until age 2."

Even if they don't speak words, however, babies appear to understand what their parents say by the end of their first year of life, she says.

Studying language development in infants is a big challenge for Jenny Saffran, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. "They can't tell us. We can't ask an 8-month-old or a 14-month-old, 'How did you figure out that dog is a word, or what does cup mean, or what's the past tense of is.'"

About 20 babies take part in each of Gerken's studies, which feature masculine and feminine Russian words. Like Spanish and French, Russian divides some words into genders. Russian also adds special endings to nouns to show where they fit in a sentence in relation to the verb, Gerken explains. For example, a case ending could indicate that a word is the object or subject of a sentence.

"In English, we do that with word order. Russian allows you to have a freer word order, but the price you pay is that you have to mark who did what to whom," she says.

In the studies, the babies listen to Russian words for about two minutes while sitting on a parent's lap in a soundproof room. "We give them six masculine words and six feminine words with each of two case endings on the case words," Gerken says.

Then the babies are tested by being told correct and incorrect forms of the words. If they respond with interest to the words, this suggests that they have found something "new" that doesn't jibe with what they just learned, Gerken says.

Researchers assume the babies are more stimulated by words that don't follow patterns they were just exposed to.

"What we find was that even though they've only had these two minutes of exposure, they appear to be able to tell the difference between the good and bad combinations," she says. "They've figured out the system, they know they've heard the word with this other combination ending, and they extrapolate that it's OK."

Gerken's work is not published, but she plans to submit it for publication in a linguistics journal.

How do adults do on the same test? It takes them longer to figure out the system, perhaps because they make it too complicated, Gerken says. "One of the reasons we think babies might have a leg up on adults is that babies get this exposure before they try to figure out what the words mean."

What To Do

For more on child development, try Tufts University or the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

SOURCES: LouAnn Gerken, Ph.D., associate professor, speech, hearing science and linguistics, University of Arizona, Tempe; Jenny Saffran, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison
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