The study is the first to demonstrate that experience in multilingual environments has a significant effect on the expectations that children form about what words mean and who uses them as early as 13 months old.
It found bilingual infants are less likely to assume everyone speaks the same language and are surprised when speakers previously shown to speak different languages use the same word for the same object.
Multilingual infants are particularly sensitive to the fact that people who use different languages do not use the same word for the same object.
“Exposure to multiple languages encourages infants to be more restrictive in their assumption that people who speak the same language share words and enhances their understanding that people who speak different languages do not,” Dr Henderson says.
“So differences in monolingual and bilingual infants may play an important role in infants’ subsequent language development and that’s a possibility that needs further research.”
The study measured the responses of bilingual and monolingual children to visual stimuli by measuring “looking time”. This commonly-used method provides a measurement for how very young children understand their world.
The study, ‘She called that thing a mido, but should you call it a mido too? Linguistic experience influences infants’ expectations of conventionality’, is published in Frontiers in Psychology.
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