Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads. The podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children.
Sharon Unsworth: We’re back and we start with some exciting news. Kletsheads recently won the Dutch National Prize for Science Communication in the field of Linguistics. What a great way to start this second season of the English language edition of the podcast. And we’ve got a cracker for you to kick things off. In this episode, I’ll share the first Kletsheads Quick and Easy, and we’re talking about bilingual babies. How and when do babies figure out that they’re learning two languages? And how do researchers know all this? Keep listening to find out more.
Sharon Unsworth: Children start talking when they’re around one year old. However, we know from research that they’re already working on language before that. We know, for example, that even new-born babies can distinguish sounds from many different languages, even if they’ve never heard them before. You could almost say that everyone starts life as a bilingual. But what about real bilingual babies? Babies who hear two or more languages from birth onwards? Learning a language as a baby when you can do little more than sleep, drink and poo seems complicated enough when it comes to one language. What about when you’re learning two? How do bilingual babies keep their two languages apart? Can they actually manage to keep their two languages apart? How did they learn the first words? These are all questions we are going to discuss in this episode of Kletsheads together with Krista Byers-Heinlein from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. I started by asking Krista whether it’s really true that all babies start out their lives being a bit bilingual.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: That, you know, that’s a really interesting way to put it. So what we do know is that babies are born with sort of universal sensitivities, so they don’t know which language or languages they’re going to be learning. That’s something they’re going to find out, so they have to be ready for anything. And it seems that they’re ready to learn either one language or multiple languages, depending on what they’re exposed to. So at birth, they can hear all those different sounds that occur in in all of the world’s languages. But later on, they’re going to be specialized just to the language or languages that they’re hearing.
Sharon Unsworth: Right. So basically depends on what you hear and then you tune in to?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: That’s right. You tune in and that tuning in happens really early. So it actually happens within the first year of life that babies start to tune in and notice, oh, this is a sound that’s important in my language. This is a distinction that I hear. I better pay attention to this one. Or this is something that I never hear, I’m just going to ignore this difference. Even though for another baby who was exposed to that sound in their language, they would pay attention to it.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I think that’s really fascinating, right, if you think that children, when they were babies could hear all these differences that they can’t hear anymore.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah, that’s right. And sometimes as adults, we we lament that it’s hard to learn a new language. We always have an accent, but that that accent is from that tuning in process. It’s actually really valuable. That happened while we were babies.
Sharon Unsworth: Right. So basically, you get rid of all the things that you don’t need yet?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah, yeah you get rid of those things that you don’t need to focus on the ones that you do need and that are important to you and get really good at hearing those ones.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Maybe you can just walk us through what happens then in that first year of of life?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Right. I mean, so babies are are born, fortunately, into a very rich language environment. So there are people who are talking around them. And most adults naturally use a kind of babytalk to babies, so we also call it infant-directed speech. So it’s it’s high pitched, it’s rhythmic, it’s exaggerated, it’s emotional. And we know that babies pay special attention to that kind of speech. That’s just something that grownups do anyway. So you don’t really need to make a special effort, but babies seem to tune in on that. And that seems to really orient their attention to what to pay attention to. So this adult is talking to me, this is something important. And we’ve found in the infant research field that this kind of speech actually helps babies start to learn. So babies are listening to the speech. They’re listening to the rhythm of language. The rhythm is something really important early on. And we think that that rhythm is something that helps very, very young bilingual babies to distinguish different languages. So, for example, Germanic languages like English, Dutch and German have a different rhythm than Romance languages like French and Spanish. So even from birth, babies are going to be able to tell those two families of languages apart.
Sharon Unsworth: As adults, you can also hear that different languages sound different. As Krista just mentioned, they have a different rhythm. Compare, for example, German:
Sharon Unsworth: Spanish:
Sharon Unsworth: And Japanese:
Sharon Unsworth: Now without being able to understand what’s being said, you can probably hear how these languages sound different, and these differences come from the way languages combine vowels and consonants. In languages like German and Dutch, you get several consonants, one after each other. My favourite example here is the German word dampfschiff, so steamboat, and here the, you can hear a series of consonants, one after each other: mpfsch, dampfschiff. And in languages like German and Dutch, vowels are sometimes long and sometimes short. Now things work differently in languages like Spanish, where you don’t often find many consonants clustered together in this way, and the vowels are more evenly spaced out. And things are different again in languages like Japanese. In Japanese, a syllable almost always consists of one consonant and one vowel. And you can see this in words that are imported into Japanese from English. So take the word space, as in, you know, open space with astronauts, rockets and stuff, when that’s used in Japanese, it’s changed into su-pe-su, supesu. So you see that they were there’s a cluster of consonants, like ‘sp’, a vowel is inserted. So it’s not spesu, but supesu. Ice cream is aisukurimu. And I apologize to all the Japanese listeners for my appalling pronunciation, but hopefully the idea is clear. What this means then, this characteristic of Japanese is that it has a very different rhythm from languages like Spanish and German. And so this is what very young bilingual babies might use then to tell their languages apart. I asked Krista whether there was anything else that babies might use to do this.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Well, I think we’re still discovering all the different pieces of information that they use. We know they can tell the languages apart. So I mentioned rhythm, we know that’s available from birth. But by four months, babies are able to tell apart languages that are really similar to each other. So, for example, Spanish and Catalan, these are really similar languages but Anglo babies learning these languages at four months can tell the difference. They can’t be using rhythm because rhythm is not going to be something that distinguishes those two languages. So they’re tuning into something else. Maybe it’s the sounds of the languages or the way those sounds are combined. And every time we sort of look at different pieces of information that babies might be able to use, it seems that oftentimes they are using it. One piece of information that we’ve been looking at in my research is whether babies pay attention to who speaks which language. So that’s one idea you might have like, okay, well, if you have one parent speaking one language, the other parent speaking the other language, maybe that’s going to help the babies to notice there’s a difference between the two languages and and really keep track of that. What we found so far is that babies don’t seem to be super in tuned with that. You know so far we’ve just tested if they, for strangers, so not we haven’t looked at whether they’re tracking their parents that’s a bit more complicated but whether babies are tracking which languages strangers speak and that doesn’t seem to be particularly important to them. And it might be that, you know, that’s not necessarily a reliable cue for them. So the fact is that they may encounter anyone who speaks one language or two languages. So you don’t want to start thinking, oh, well, you know, all men speak French. I’m going to assume that, like, just like thought that, you know, it might be a better idea to pay attention to those things that are consistent regardless of the speaker. So like the rhythm and the different sounds, for example.
Sharon Unsworth: Right. So I’m guessing there probably parents listening and thinking like, oh, okay, does that mean I don’t need to worry so much if I mix my languages when I’m the French speaker?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yes, I think that’s exactly what it means, that mixing your languages won’t mix up your baby. That they’re actually quite sophisticated and telling which language you’re speaking. And we’ve been doing a lot of research on actually how parents mix their languages with their babies and how often. What really surprised us is that parents seem to actually mixing languages in ways that support their babies development for these kind of… So, for example, saying a word in one language and then immediately translating it into the other. So we have started to think that some of that mixing up could actually be really beneficial to bilingual development. But when it comes to, you know, does each parent need to strongly stick to one language, we have no evidence that that’s important to support that bilingual development. So what’s important is if the baby hears enough of each language and that that’s interactive from real people, so not specifically who speaks which language or whether they always stick to a single language.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I think that will be reassuring for many parents. And we’ve talked about mixing in the first season where we talked to Elma Blom about the results on language mixing and how there’s no reason to think, as you so nicely put it, that mixing mixing your languages is going to mix up your baby.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: All right.
Sharon Unsworth: So we’ve talked a bit about how, you know, they keep their languages separate from each other. But how do they now that certain combinations of sounds are possible in one language, but not in the other?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah. So, you know, babies in their first year of life, they don’t seem like they’re doing much. But in some ways you could think of them as little computers that are tracking everything. And some things that they’re tracking are just things that tend to go together in the speech that they hear. So they’re tracking just the specific sounds. I hear this sound, I don’t hear this sound, but they might track oh well these, these two sounds tend to go together. So in English you could have the combination s-t ‘st’, but in some other languages you couldn’t have that. So it seems that babies are tracking and paying attention to the sounds that they do and they don’t hear and they seem to notice, okay, well, this is a sound combination that’s okay in my language or in this language. This one, this one is not. And they also track syllables as well. So they start to notice all these these syllables, wow, this the syllable ba and by, I keep hearing those together all the time and we think that this is one way that they’re going to start to figure out what the words are in their language.
Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. So I think many people will find that quite surprising, right. Like how can a baby track that?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Absolutely. And and, you know, it’s not something that they know that they’re doing. It seems to be something that’s just naturally their brain as it’s listening, is sort of, you know, processing these these sounds and is learning this not in an overt way, but more in an implicit, hidden way. That really, really find out about if we test it, you know, in our lab with very controlled laboratory procedures. But we think that it’s this type of learning that is allowing them to figure out a lot of things about their language and in the case of bilinguals, to figure out about each of their languages. So when you think about a bilingual baby encountering their languages, yes, there may be some mixing and families may go back and forth between their their two languages. And that’s normal. But in general, words tend to hang together in one language. So, you know, an English word will tend to follow with another English word, another English word, you know, you’ll say a whole sentence or have a conversation in one language and then another. And so what we think is that the babies are sort of keeping track of this. And this is also one of the things that’s going to help them pull apart their languages, because the languages just do tend to go together in time, even if there’s some switching back and forth.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So do you think they start, because you just said they pull apart their languages, so are they tracking the two languages separately from each other? Did they have like the little counter for English and the little counter for Dutch or for Swahili and whatever the other language might be?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah, this is a great question, and it’s a question that we don’t totally know the answer to. So, you know, I don’t think it’s the case that, you know, the minute they hear two different things, they’re going to immediately say, oh, I have to set up two bins today. You know, I’m born today and I know there’s two bins, but I think these languages are going to sort of gradually emerge from their experience. And so, you know, a baby at one month old doesn’t learn words. They’re learning about sounds. But as those, they start to hear those sounds for those two languages, those sort of two piles are going to start to build up separately. So the baby doesn’t overtly need to think, Oh, I better make two piles. Those two just come out to them. And as they build two piles of sounds and two piles of words and two piles of grammars, those two languages sort of come together as sort of separable systems that they can then use to communicate.
Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. And I wonder then whether if you’re a baby who’s exposed to two languages that are quite closely related, right. You mentioned before Spanish and Catalan. I can think of Dutch and German. I mean, we can name many different combinations, but does that make it harder to separate the two? Do we know anything about that?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah, this is something I’ve thought a lot about, because you could have two different ideas about this, right? On the one hand, you could think, Oh, wow, if you’re learning two really similar languages, it’s hard to keep them apart. So it’s going to be hard to learn this language combination. On the other hand, you can think, well, if you’re learning two similar languages, maybe things that you learned in the first language could help help you about the second language. Maybe there’s similarities across these two languages that could help you. So, you know, this is a real question. What the research seems to say so far, and that research mostly has been looking at that those early words that babies understand and say is that more similar languages are actually a bit easier to learn exactly, because you can transfer some information between them. So, for example, languages that are related have words we call cognates that sort of have a same historical root. They sound similar. So an example in English and French would be banana and banane.
Sharon Unsworth: Or banaan in Dutch.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Exactly. Yeah. You know, parents could think of examples in their own languages, this and we have done some research showing that those words are acquired a little bit earlier than you would expect. So it seems something about hearing those, you know, banana and banane that they’re so similar and they have the same meaning. That seems to give a little boost to children in learning those words. It’s not a huge boost. It’s pretty small. But that suggests that children are kind of using one language to help the other if that’s available to them. So there may be a small advantage in trying to learn languages that are more similar to each other. But it’s not going to be huge. And we certainly know that children are capable of learning any language pair at all. So it doesn’t matter if the languages are similar or dissimilar from each other.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, because I can imagine now all the parents who are listening, any of the languages that are very different to each other, thinking does that mean their babies are at a disadvantage?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: No, not at all. That difference that we find in those sort of similar sounding words, those cognate words, is really, really small in the scheme of things. And it’s really, again, something that we can only notice when we study hundreds of babies. And it’s not something that you’re going to see on an individual level. That’s not really going to make any difference in the long run. It’s just something interesting to understand, like, oh, babies can notice, okay, there’s a similarity here, I’m going to take advantage of it. If it’s there, they use it. If it’s not, well, it’s not, but they’re still able to learn those languages.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So you’ve mentioned a couple of times, you know, you just said I would need to test hundreds of babies. And you said, you know, we see certain things when we look at babies in a controlled lab setting. And I think many parents might be interested to know exactly what goes on when you do one of these experiments. Now, I know, of course, the researchers have come up with these ingenious ways of figuring out what new-born babies do or don’t know about language. Maybe you could tell us a bit about those.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah. So, I mean, as parents could imagine, testing babies, trying to figure out what they’re thinking and what they know is really, really hard because, you know, when we might want to do an experiment with adults, we have them press a button, we have them answer a questionnaire, all these kinds of things. Babies aren’t going to do anything like that. So you have to take advantage of their natural behaviours that they’re going to do anyway. So with new-born babies, one technique that we have is actually take advantage of their sucking. So babies have a sucking reflex and you can actually teach them something about their sucking. So in a particular study that we did, we taught new-born babies that they could actually control a sound with their sucking. So every time they would give a strong suck on a certain pacifier that was attached to a pressure transducer and a computers, all this equipment, when they would give a strong suck, they would get to hear a sound played by the computer. And so they they would learn after just a few minutes, they could control the sound with their sucking. And so babies like sound, they love the sound of the human voice. So they would suck to hear a human voice so we could do something like play them sounds from one language for a while. So every time they’d suck, they would hear one language and, and two, you know, babies, they get bored after a while. And so if we keep playing them the same thing over and over, they’re sucking kind of drops off. They’re not as interested. What we then did is for half the babies, we changed the language, so and for half of them we kept the same language. So the idea that they noticed that changed, they might kind of be a bit excited and increase their sucking again. That’s exactly what we found in the study that we did with new-born babies. So we actually looked at babies who are exposed to just one language in the womb to babies who are exposed to two languages in the womb. So kind of prenatal bilingualism, if you can think of that. In here when we talk about this, we’re talking about the languages the mothers speak because it’s really the mother’s voice that’s very, very loud in the womb, although there might be other people outside the womb who are speaking other languages, that’s not going to be influential because it’s just much softer. But what we found was that both the monolingual babies, the babies of monolingual mothers and the babies of bilingual mothers could tell the difference between different languages from birth, those languages they were learning. In the case of bilinguals, we are also able to test if they preferred one language over the other. And what we found was the monolingual babies did prefer that language that their mother had spoken during the pregnancy, but the bilingual babies liked of both languages quite a lot. So this really shows that babies are tuned in to these languages from early on. They’re able to tell different languages apart. Some parents might ask like, Oh, does this mean if my baby wasn’t bilingual in the womb, then that’s going to put them behind? No, that’s not the case. So, you know, we know that babies are going to get a lot of language exposure after birth as well. And we don’t have any evidence that that prenatal exposure is critical. But it’s just interesting to see how young babies are listening to this language.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely fascinating. Right. I know when I tell my students about, they said, your your study, they’re always very flabbergasted that that might actually have an effect, that the language or languages that the mother speaks whilst the baby’s developing in the womb. Just for the record, how far developed does the baby need to be before the baby starts hearing in the womb?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah, so we know that the hearing is almost fully developed during the third trimester, but of course we have no way of knowing exactly when this experience is mattering because the moms are speaking their two languages throughout the pregnancy as well. These babies were new-borns. They were actually tested in a maternity hospital, but they were a few days old, so they were between one and five days old. So they had had a few days of postnatal experience as well. So that might have played a little role as well. We can’t rule that out.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, but still incredibly young.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: But still, these are incredibly young babies. I mean, it’s really fun to work with new-born babies. They’re very challenging as well. Some people have asked me if, oh, are you going to do a follow up on that study? Well, I would love to do that. That study that we did actually took ten years to test all these new-born babies.
Sharon Unsworth: What?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: It did. You know, it’s such a challenge to work with them because, of course, these days parents are staying in the hospital shorter and shorter time. So it’s not a lot of window to test the babies. The babies have to be awake to do the study to suck. And wow, a new-born baby, you know, some people say, oh, don’t wake the baby. I can tell you if the new-born wants to sleep, there is nothing you can do to wake it up. I have tried. That was my job to do that in testing them. And of course they have to be willing to suck and participate in the study without crying. And it happened a lot as well that babies would sort of start and then decide, oh, I really wish this was milk instead of hearing sounds, I think I don’t want to participate anymore. And they would cry and so we would stop the study. So it was incredibly difficult studies to do, but very rewarding when when you’re able to see the results in the end.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, so that sounds like a nightmare, quite frankly, as a researcher. What other methods are used then? Because, you know, like you said, that is difficult. So there are other methods, right?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Right, right. So with older babies, what we often measure is their attention. And so we measure that through their looking pattern. So for example, in the recent collaboration that I was part of, this was a worldwide collaboration that involved more than 40 laboratories around the world, but all these laboratories we collaborate to look at this babies preference for infant-directed speech or baby talk and how they might prefer that to the speech that we would just formally talk to an adult. What we did was we played them these different sounds, the infant-directed speech in the adult-directed speech, and we showed them just something neutral on a screen in front of them. And we know that when babies listen, they look. So by measuring the amount of time they looked at the screen while they were hearing the sounds, we could also measure how long they were listening for. So we could see did they look longer when it was that sort of baby talk infant-directed speech than it was when it was the adult-directed speech? And so indeed, that’s what we found, is that babies, and these are babies from all around the world actually, preferred that infant-directed speech. They preferred it more and more as they got older. And there was a whole component of the study that was just focused on bilingual babies. And what was interesting there was that you have, so in this particular study, the speech we were playing them was English. So this was a language that some babies were familiar with but other babies were not familiar with. Maybe they were learning Dutch or German or Hebrew or Hungarian. And we had some bilingual babies who are hearing say two languages, so say English and Hebrew, others who are not learning English as a language. And the ones who were learning English were learning, hearing English in different proportions. So one bilingual baby might hear not too much English, maybe English 25% of the time and their other language, 75% of the time versus another who is hearing English much more, 75% of the time. And so how much they preferred that infant directed speech, depending on how familiar they were with English. So the more English they heard, the more they liked that type of speech. What that showed us is that babies are really tuned in to that amount of exposure they have in each of their languages. So they always like that infant-directed speech. But if it’s in the native language that they’re very familiar with, they like it even, even more.
Sharon Unsworth: So it’s a combination both of that way of talking, right? So if there are people listening and they don’t really know what that means, it’s like, oh, what a pretty baby. Oh, don’t you look cute today. That kind of exaggerated speech that we all find ourselves using when we see a tiny little baby. So the fact that all the babies preferred that over just, you know, adults talking in a normal way.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yes. Any baby from any language background, all the groups of babies liked that speech. Whether or not they they knew the language at all. They all liked it, but they liked it even more, the more they were familiar with the length.
Sharon Unsworth: Right. I correct me if I’m wrong here, Krista, but I thought there were certain cultures where parents didn’t engage in infant-directed speech. Is that right?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: That’s correct. There have been a few cultures that have been identified that don’t seem to engage in infant directed speech. Unfortunately, we we weren’t able to test any of those babies in this study. I think that would be really interesting to see if it’s something that you need to have experience with or it’s sort of something that maybe is is more built in, we don’t know. So that that is an interesting open question. So there are a few cultures that don’t seem to use that. Most cultures in the world do seem to to use infant-directed speech.
Sharon Unsworth: The next step is looking at bilingual babies with a combination of those two.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: That would be a really exciting study to do.
Sharon Unsworth: We’re going to leave our conversation with Krista now for a moment to listen to one of the new features I’ve added to the podcast this season where I share a concrete tip that you can put to use straightaway to make a success of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic.
Kletsheads Quick and Easy
Sharon Unsworth: Our very first Kletsheads Quick and Easy is a simple one. And that’s to pay your bilingual child a compliment. Compliment them on their language skills and tell them what you as a parent, teacher or speech-language therapist are proud of. For example, when children do their best to say something to grandma and grandpa while they’re on a video call, or when they use a difficult word, or when they try to read something in a language that they’re not yet so proficient in, make it clear what you’re praising them for by being specific. For example, as a parent, you can say, “I think it’s amazing how you switch so easily from one language to the other. The way you just did that with your grandma was very nice. Now, grandma can also follow our conversation and join in.” Or, “I know you sometimes find it hard to speak Norwegian, Italian, Swahili or whatever the languages, and I can really see you’re trying your best to read this book. That’s really great to see.” Compliments like this make a child feel valued. It boosts their self-esteem and gives them self-confidence when it comes to using the heritage language. It’s also a way of recognising that speaking two or more languages is not always easy and that it can sometimes take extra effort. So that’s the Kletsheads Quick and Easy for this episode. Pay your bilingual children or a bilingual child in your class a compliment about something to do with their bilingualism. Try it today and let us know what effect it has either on social media or by sending us an email at email@example.com
Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so we’ve talked a bit about sounds and so babies start with a sound and then sound combinations of the language or languages that they’re learning. And then they have to learn that certain combinations of sounds have meaning so that words they can refer to certain objects. How do babies move then from sounds? So this whole stream of sounds that they hear, how do they figure out what these words are? You mentioned a bit about that just before, but maybe you can tell us a bit more about how babies learn words and in particular, if there are any differences in the way bilingual children do that and monolingual children do that.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Hmm yeah. So I mentioned earlier how babies start to pick out the words of their language. And then, we think even as early as 6 to 9 months, babies might be able to start to understand some highly frequent words. So the kind of words that we’re talking about are like words for food, like spoon, milk, words for Barbie, body parts like hands and feet or words for important people in their life, like mommy, daddy or mama, papa, whatever the words used in their family. So it seems that babies sort of start to learn those words that are really important to them first, and they do this well. We’re not completely sure how they do this. It’s pretty amazing that they’re able to do this. But certainly they notice certain sounds often occur at the same time as certain objects that they see or they’re sensitive to parents pointing or looking at an object when they say a word and they’re able to start to pick out on these things through repetition and start to figure it out. So babies don’t need to be taught words explicitly. It’s common in some cultures, you know, to say things like, “look, it’s a ball, it’s a ball, look at the ball”. That doesn’t necessarily happen in all cultures. And babies don’t actually need that to learn words. They’re just naturally. So that kind of process, we think, is something that happens very similar for monolingual and bilingual babies. Where there could be some differences is the idea that for most things in their life, bilingual babies need to learn two different words, so one in each of their languages. So that’s kind of interesting. It relates to interesting question, you know, how how are they going to handle that? So we know that for monolingual babies at a certain point, they don’t really like to have two words for the same thing. You know, they know that word dog and if you try to name a dog with another word, you call it ?? , they’re going to say, no, it’s a dog. You know, I already have the for that. For bilingual babies, they need to learn those two words. So how do they do that? Well, it seems that bilingual babies don’t make that assumption as categorically so. They don’t say, oh, there has to be only one word for everything. They seem to open that there could be multiple labels and labels in each of their their languages to label different things. And this is a good, this is a good thing for them because this allows them to fully learn their two languages.
Sharon Unsworth: Right? So when you try and trick monolingual kids into renaming something like you just, what you’d say feb instead of a dog.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: No, it’s not that dog mind something that I don’t have a word for. Oh, it must be this. This funny looking toy that must be affected. It’s not this dog. Whereas bilingual is. If they heard this word fact, they’re like, well, I don’t know. You know, things have multiple words. You know, maybe it’s this tiny looking thing. Maybe it’s the, the dog. That’s that’s what seems to happen early on. As kids get older, they get quite sophisticated. So bilingual kids know, okay, well, I’m learning two languages. There should be two labels for this this object. I’m not going to learn five different labels for the word dog.
Sharon Unsworth: Monolingual children have to learn that, too, right? Because certain objects can have different labels or it can be dog, it can be German Shepherd.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: That’s right. So what children eventually need to learn is that, yes, the same object can have different labels. We we think of these labels as being different because German Shepherd is more specific than dog. You can also call a dog an animal. So the these are different levels of categories that children eventually need to learn. Oh, yeah. Okay. You know, there are certain there’s animals. One kind of animal is dog, one kind of dog is German shepherds, etc..
Sharon Unsworth: It’s funny that we’re talking about dogs because I’m not re-, anybody knows me will know, hmm, Sharon doesn’t really like dogs. And we’re talking about dogs. Anyway, I’d just like to finish with slightly different topic. And that’s the idea that some researchers have had, that bilingual children have certain cognitive advantages over monolingual children, right. So using two languages has been claimed to help you, let’s say, focus better or to ignore unimportant information. Now, this is a, an area of some controversy, I think, in the research world. I think that’s fair to say. Do we also see this benefit for babies?
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Yeah, this this, as you say, has been an area of controversy and it has been a hot topic. So about ten years ago, one group found a way to test this in bilingual babies. And what they did was they would teach a baby a certain rule. So when you see this fun animation on the screen, look to the left side of the screen. There’s going to be something else fun that pops up. So you teach them, you know, look to the left, the left, left, left. And then after a while, of course, we like to trick babies. That’s what we need to do in research. And so then suddenly, instead of going on that left, that fun surprise appears on the right. The question is, how flexible are babies from learning this new rule? It was always on the left. Now it’s going to be on the right. Our original finding was that bilingual babies did better at learning that new rule. So that would kind of support that idea. Now, since then, there have been a lot of other research groups, you know, looking at that, oh, can we find the same result if we test different kind of babies? And, you know, some some researchers have found that result. Some researchers hadn’t. In my lab, we also decided to to look at that. And we were able to test a larger group of babies. And interestingly, we found a little bit of a nuance to that result that hadn’t been reported before. So what we actually found was when we looked at that original learning. So originally learning, okay, look to the left. Well, the monolingual is we’re kind of faster at that. They were quite ready to settle on that rule a little bit faster, the bilinguals were a little bit slower. But then when they had to switch because bilinguals are a little bit more tentative, they weren’t ready to totally confirm that. Then the bilinguals are more flexible to switch. So this is where our thinking is now, is that it’s not that there’s a necessarily a bilingual advantage or it’s really a difference. It really seems to be that bilinguals are more open to that. There could be different source of information. The environment may change that. There could be two different rules going on. And because of that openness, that makes them flexible to switch. But at the same time, you know, in this case, it took them just a little bit longer. And I say a little bit longer, I mean, about 30 seconds longer to sort of learn the original rule. The interesting thing was we had, you know, in another condition, we had a sort of a different type of rule. And in this case, we found the exact opposite, that monolinguals were slower to learn the original role, but then they had an easier time to switch. So we think there’s really maybe some kind of trade-off going on there.
Sharon Unsworth: Right. So having experience with people not always speaking the same language, you maybe not always expressing things in the same way or with the same grammatical rules or having the same label for, or having different labels, in fact, for the same same objects, that allows you to be more flexible. And you see that even with tiny babies.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Even with babies, yeah. So we already see and the way we think of that, that each child really adapted to their own environment. So it’s an adaptation. So bilinguals are adapted in a way that’s going to help them learn from their environment. So that’s good for them and monolingual are adapted in a way that’s going to help them learn from their environment and that’s good for them. So each child is adapted, sort of, in the right way for their own environment, which is great that children are ready even from these early ages, from babies, that they’re going to be able to handle what it is that they need to learn.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. So I like that. I like this idea that, you know, bilinguals are different.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Bilinguals are different.
Sharon Unsworth: And that’s fine.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: You know, better. It’s not worse. Your children grow up in different types of language environments and it’s important to support them in whatever, whatever that environment is that they need to navigate.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Well, thanks, Krista. That’s been super interesting to hear about what happens to tiny little babies and how much they know, even at this very young age. I’m sure many of our listeners will have really enjoyed listening to that. Thank you very much.
Krista Byers-Heinlein: Well thank you so much Sharon.
Sharon Unsworth: In this episode of Kletsheads, we learned that bilingual babies are able to keep their languages apart from an early age. What helps them do this? Well, it seems the differences that exist between languages in terms of the rhythm certainly help, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary, for example, for each parent to speak one language only. I really like the way that Krista put this: Mixing in languages won’t mix up your babies. As I said earlier on, we have a whole episode on mixing in the first season of Kletsheads, so please have a listen to that if you want to find out more about that particular topic. We also heard today that bilingual babies learning two similar languages are able to make use of the similarities between those languages to learn new words. Though, as Krista pointed out, any such advantage is very small. That doesn’t mean that babies learning languages that are very different from each other are at a disadvantage. Finally, we also spoke about potential differences between bilingual and monolingual babies when it comes to their flexibility in learning new rules that don’t have anything to do with language. Bilingual babies adapt to the environment they’re growing up in, and this can have consequences for how they learn such rules.
Sharon Unsworth: We’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode where in our second new feature for the season, Hot off the Press, where I tell you about a recent study which examines how bilingual children learn some of the more difficult grammatical rules in their heritage language, whether it matters what other languages or whether they’re educated in that language. And we hear from my neighbour, Kate. She’s an American mum of two bilingual children growing up with English and Dutch. And she tells us how last summer, at age five and eight, her daughters finally started speaking to her in English instead of Dutch. It’s a story of hope, and I can’t wait to share it with you. In the meantime, give this episode’s Quick and Easy a go: Give your bilingual child a compliment.
Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at kletsheadspodcast.org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or, as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!
This transcript was generated using amberscript.com and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.