Experts often refer to young children, toddlers through Kindergarten, as being “sponges” of information. One of the well-documented developmental gifts of young children is the rapidity of their language acquisition. In fact, new research shows that children as young as 6 months old have started some language acquisition in the form of sound recognition. What’s more, these kids can even distinguish between language sounds, and develop a kind of preference for their native language over others.
Researchers from the University of Washington have been developing an understanding of how small children from monolingual and bilingual homes differ in their language acquisition. Focusing on children from 6 months through 1-year-old, researchers placed the children in mini-EEG caps and monitored their brain function as they listened to and processed linguistic sounds. Of course, they’re too young, in most cases, to be producing language sounds of their own. At 6 months babies are able to distinguish language sounds, whether they are from the primary language spoken at home, or from another language. However, by 10 to 12 months, babies growing up in a monolingual home are distinguishing sounds only from the language that is spoken at home and disregard noises from other languages. This is a process that researchers dubbed, “neural commitment”, or the process by which children hardwire their brains to recognize their native language and dedicate language acquisition to only those sounds.
Bilingual babies, however, seem to be more open to a breadth of language sounds. Dr. Patricia Kuhl, one of the authors of the study, told The New York Times, “What the study demonstrates is that the variability in bilingual babies’ experience keeps them open. They do not show the perceptual narrowing as soon as monolingual babies do.” Additionally, Dr. Janet Werker, a psychology professor at the University of British Colombia, studies how children differentiate language and develop with language in utero. She found that children tend to gravitate toward the rhythms and cadence of the language that they hear in the womb, but are able to differentiate between language sounds, and to register that languages are different. In other words, children are able to recognize language sounds very early on, but tend to consolidate their efforts to a single language if there is only one language primarily being spoken. However, bilingual children will grow up differentiating between languages and able to stay more cognitively open and flexible in their language acquisition.
This shows that obsolete ideas of “language confusion” among small children where more than one language are being spoken are entirely false and that, in fact, bilingual homes do a great service to children in their early years to foster the development of language acquisition