Babies can connect language to ethnicity, confirms research

University of British Columbia

A new study in the field of Developmental Psychology confirms that infants can link language with ethnicity. The study led by a team from the University of British Columbia concluded that 11-month old babies when conversing in Cantonese looked often at people with Asian descent than at those with Caucasian descent. A reverse observation was recorded with English and Spanish conversations.

The research study was carried out in Vancouver, which is home to at least nine percent of the Cantonese population. For the study, researchers played sentences in both English and Cantonese to English-learning infants of Caucasian descent. It was observed that infants who heard Cantonese, looked more at Asian faces. Similarly, they looked at both Asian and Caucasian faces when they heard English. This explained that the infants understood that while Cantonese can only be spoken by Caucasians, English is spoken by both Asian and Caucasians.

“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 a language,” commented Lillian May, a lecturer of psychology at UBC who is also responsible for leading the study.

Moreover, the researchers also experimented with the Spanish language to see if the infants could connect with the unfamiliarity of the language. Here they observed that the infants looked equally at Caucasian and Asian faces. This concluded that infants could pick up only on a specific language-ethnicity and could pair it based on faces and languages.

“Babies are learning so much about language–even about its social use–long before they produce the first word,” commented a lead researcher of the study. “The link between speaker characteristics and language is something no one has to teach babies. They learn it all on their own.”

The study which was published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology could further be helpful in understanding language acquisition.