What happens when babies are exposed to more than one language at the same time? You might be worried about them getting confused, but The Ling Space is here this week to talk about bilingualism, and how kids have no trouble working out how to build their two languages right. It turns out babies, as always, are linguistically amazing.

Since we started the Ling Space, this is the topic we’ve been asked about the most. And we’ve got some extra material about bilingualism back on our website, too. We’re excited to hear what you all think!

The Ling Space is a relatively new YouTube channel about linguistics, posting every week on Wednesdays, and their previous videos are also worth checking out

One of the most interesting findings about the critical period for infants and telling apart speech sounds is that it’s socially sensitive. A lot of people’s first reaction to studies like these is “great, I’ll just get some recordings of other languages and play them to my hypothetical future children”, but studies have shown that this doesn’t actually work. That is, kids will learn sounds from exposure to real-life people but not from recordings.

I couldn’t find the reference anymore, but I seem to recall reading an neat twist on this several years ago: if you put the speaker behind a video loop such that they can see the baby and respond to it, the baby will actually learn the sounds, whereas if you play the baby a video of a adult interacting via video loop with a different baby, the baby doesn’t learn anymore. Social interaction and joint attention are very important. I wonder if this is part of what makes interactive-y shows like Blue’s Clues particularly useful for kids’ learning.

There’s also more today on bilingualism from Claire Bowern on kids learning from non-native speakers. Excerpt: 

In fact, kids who are exposed to early language from non-native speakers usually grow up to be full speakers of that language. For example, deaf children of hearing parents benefit greatly from early exposure to Sign Language from non-natively signing parents, and in fact end up almost as fluent as Deaf people who have Sign Language exposure from birth. Another striking example comes from Daryl Baldwin and David Costa’s work on revitalizing the Native American language Myaamia, where children fluently use sounds and grammar that their parents, who learned the language as adults, still struggle with.

Having grown up bilingual myself (French-English, if you were wondering), I always find it surprising when I hear people doubt the ability of kids to master multiple languages. I mean, this concern becomes even weirder when you think that probably most humans, both presently and throughout history, have been to some degree multilingual! There are huge swaths of the world where it’s pretty much the norm to speak (at least to some degree of proficiency) multiple languages. So why the big fuss?

I honestly don’t know. It’s not a rhetorical question. I feel like the answer might lie somewhere in the treacherous domain of language politics… Feel free to educate me, Internet.

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