Quick summary:

Babies have an incredible innate ability to learn language, sponging it up from the environment around them. But when they get exposed to more than one language at the same time, can they work it out? It's natural to worry about them getting confused, but there's nothing to be worried about. They have no trouble building up proper grammars for both languages.

When it comes to syntax, they work out the appropriate places to put negation, use the right pronouns, get the right word order, and all the different requirements. And they learn to divide up the sound spectrum into the right phonemes for each of their languages - we discuss Catalan / Spanish bilinguals, and their ability to divide up the vowel space appropriately for both languages. We also hit on code mixing, when kids put sounds or words or sentences together from their different languages, and discuss how kids, like adults, obey societal cues about when switching between their languages is appropriate.


Extra material:

We talk in the video this week about acquisition of different consonants by French / English bilingual babies. When you think about consonants in different languages, you probably think about sounds that exists in one language, but not in another. For example, French doesn't have the [θ] and [ð] sounds, the versions of th that we find in "thin" and "the," respectively. And English doesn't have the French r sound, [ʁ], that shows up at the start of "rouge." So that's one kind of challenge to your bilingual baby learner.

But even sounds that exist in both languages can actually be trickier than you might think for kids to pick up. Even things as innocent as /p/ and /b/ hold some intrigue. Both English and French have /p/ and /b/ as basic sounds of their language; we can find pairs of words that differ only in that sound, like "pay" and "bay" in English, and "pois" pea and "bois" tree in French. So it might feel like these are the same sound in each language. Nothing special for a bilingual kid to learn, right?

Except actually, English and French draw the boundary for what exactly a /p/ and /b/ are in different places. Both languages define the difference between the two consonants by caring about when the vocal folds start vibrating in relation to when you open your lips to let the air go out. In English, a /p/ at the beginning of the word like in "pay" doesn't have vibration start until a while after your lips part, but for a /b/ like in "bay", vibration starts basically as soon as your mouth opens up.

French, on the other hand, divides this up differently: a word-initial /p/, like in "pois", will be pronounced about the same way the English /b/ is, with the vibration starting around when the lips open. But for a /b/, like in "bois," the vibration actually starts significantly before the lips even open!

This means the challenge to French-English bilingual babies is two-fold: first, they need to learn that /p/ and /b/ actually are split up differently between the two languages. And second, the same sound that in English should be interpreted as a /p/ should be treated as a /b/ in French. The exact same sound! That's a pretty tall order.

And yet, this is what's actually been reported in a study by Burns, Yoshida, Hill, and Werker. These researchers looked at three age groups of both monolingual English and French/English bilingual babies: 6-8 month olds, 10-12 month olds, and 14-20 month olds. They wanted to see whether the babies in each age range could tell the difference between the English /pa/, the French /ba/, and the ambiguous sound that in English gets perceived as /ba/, but French treats as /pa/.

The way they tested this is really clever. They sat the babies down and had them get used to hearing the ambiguous intermediate /ba/-/pa/ sound. When babies get bored, they stop paying much attention, and hearing the same sound over and over gets them really bored pretty quickly. Then, once they've gotten used to one sound, they play either the French /ba/, or the English /pa/, and see if they notice a difference. If they do notice something's changed, they'll perk up. But if the new sound feels like more of the same, they'll just stay bored.

The important thing to remember here is that people tend to be really bad at telling the difference between two sounds that are in the same category in their language. And the French /ba/ will be treated like a /b/ by an English speaker, while an English /pa/ will be treated as a /p/ by a French speaker. They're just more extreme forms of the /b/ and /p/ the two languages have, respectively. So if you only speak French, hearing the difference between the English /p/ and /b/ won't really work - to a French speaker, those are both /p/ sounds. And to an English speaker, the French /p/ and /b/ both will sound like /b/. But what about bilinguals? How do they deal with it?

The youngest babies in both groups, because they're so ready for anything to go down linguistically, haven't decided on what consonants are important to their language yet. So both the English babies and the bilingual babies could tell apart all three of the sounds without any problems. This isn't a huge surprise - we know little 6-8 month old babies are super amazing at distinguishing between consonants.

It turns out we see changes in the 14-20 month old group, though. English babies can tell just fine the difference between the ambiguous sound that in English is /ba/ and the English /pa/, but they can't make the distinction that's useful for French anymore. Bilingual babies, though, can tell apart all three, no problems! They've divided the space up three ways, suggesting they have two different phonological systems set up.

And beyond that, the younger group, the 10-12 month olds? The English babies are already failing at the French distinction - they've worked out the differences that are important to their language, and they don't care about what French might do. But the bilingual babies still are attuned to all three. They still know all three types are important between their two languages. If they just cared about English or French, they should only hear the relevant distinction there, but they can do both!

The really interesting thing there is that that's the same age monolingual French or English babies are working out the distinctions. That means that learning two languages at once isn't even slowing these babies down. They nail both of them easily, nothing to worry about at all. And that's the way it goes with bilingualism. Babies are just getting down to business and working their linguistic lives out.

Babies, man. Babies.



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about how kids acquire two different languages at the same time, the challenges and how they deal with them. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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