Babies Can Link Language and Ethnicity

A recent study from Canada’s
University of British Columbia (UBC) suggests that eleven-month-old infants can
learn to associate the language they hear with ethnicity.
The research, published by Developmental Psychobiology, found that 11-month-old infants looked more at the faces of people of Asian descent compared to those of Caucasian descent when hearing Cantonese but not when hearing Spanish.
“Our findings suggest that by
11 months, infants are making connections between languages and ethnicities
based on the individuals they encounter in their environments. In learning
about language, infants are doing more than picking up sounds and sentences—they
also learn about the speakers of language,” said Lillian May, a psychology
lecturer at UBC who was lead author of the study.
The research was done in Vancouver,
where approximately nine percent of the population can speak Cantonese.
The researchers played
English-learning infants of Caucasian ancestry sentences in both English and
Cantonese and showed them pictures of people of Caucasian descent, and of Asian
descent. When the infants heard Cantonese, they looked more at the Asian faces
than when they were hearing English. When they heard English, they looked
equally to Asian and Caucasian faces.
“This indicates that they have
already learned that in Vancouver, both Caucasians and Asians are likely to
speak English, but only Asians are likely to speak Cantonese,” noted UBC
psychology professor Janet Werker, the study’s senior author.
The researchers showed the same
pictures to the infants while playing Spanish, to see whether they were
inclined to associate any unfamiliar language with any unfamiliar ethnicity.
However, in that test the infants looked equally to Asian and Caucasian faces.
This suggests young infants pick up on specific language-ethnicity pairings
based on the faces and languages they encounter.
“Babies are learning so much
about language—even about its social use—long before they produce their first
word,” said Werker. “The link between speaker characteristics and
language is something no one has to teach babies. They learn it all on their
own.”
“The ability to link language and ethnicity
might help babies with language acquisition. We are now probing this
possibility. For example, does a bilingual Chinese-English baby expect Chinese
words from a Southeast Asian speaker and English words from a Caucasian
speaker? Our preliminary results indicate that indeed, babies are using their expectations
about language and ethnicity as another source of information in language
learning,” added Werker



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