July 14, 2003 -- Infants who play and interact with people who speak foreign languages may learn and develop better language skills.
A new study shows that even brief social interaction with foreign speakers can help children overcome the natural declines in their ability to distinguish different phonetic sounds that commonly occur between 6 and 12 months of age. Researchers say the findings also suggest that social interaction may play a key role in language learning.
Researcher Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington and colleagues say that infants learn language with remarkable speed but little is known about the mechanisms behind this process.
What Babies Hear
Previous studies have shown that infants can tell the difference between the phonetic units of all languages, including both foreign- and native-language sounds, at an early age. But between 6 and 12 months of age, this ability begins to decline.
To see what interventions might prevent this decline, researchers conducted two experiments involving 9-month-old American infants raised in English-speaking homes.
In the first experiment, the infants took part in a series of 12, 25-minute sessions with native speakers of Mandarin Chinese or English. During the sessions, the adults interacted in either Chinese or English with the children by reading from books or playing with toys.
Afterward, researchers tested the children's ability to discriminate between two very similar Chinese phonetic sounds that do not occur in English. The study showed that only the children who had played with the Chinese speakers could tell the difference.
It's More Than Just Talk
To see if this was the result of just listening to foreign language or something else, researchers conducted a second experiment in which the infants were exposed to the same Mandarin speakers, but only through audiovisual or audio-only DVD recordings. This type of passive exposure to foreign language speakers had no effect.
Researchers say the findings show that infants develop phonetic language skills from social interaction with live foreign speakers.
"What does a live person provide that a DVD cannot?" write the researchers. "We suggest that specific social cues may be critical. A live human being generates interpersonal social cues that attract infant attention and motivate learning."
In addition, researchers say the study suggests that gains in children's language skills don't require long-term listening to foreign languages, but regular, short-term social interaction may be enough.