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Babies Can Tell Languages Apart by 7 Months

Update Date: Feb 14, 2013 01:48 PM EST
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Even before they begin to speak, babies as young as seven months can distinguish one language from another and begin to learn them, even if the two languages have very different rules of grammar, according to a new study.

The new study, published Feb. 14 in the journal of Nature Communications, reveals that babies living in bilingual environments use pitch and duration of spoken words to distinguish between languages like English and Japanese.

For example, in English, "function words" like prepositions and articles usually come before "content words" like nouns (the dog, his hat, with friends, etc.). Researchers said that the duration of the content word in English is also longer, while in languages like Japanese or Hindi, the order is reversed and the pitch of the content word is higher.

"By as early as seven months, babies are sensitive to these differences and use these as cues to tell the languages apart," co-author Janet Werker of the University of British Columbia and Université Paris Descartes said in a university news release.

Past studies revealed that babies use frequency of words in speech to perceive their significance.

"For example, in English the words 'the' and 'with' come up a lot more frequently than other words - they're essentially learning by counting," researcher Judit Gervain said in a news release. "But babies growing up bilingual need more than that, so they develop new strategies that monolingual babies don't necessarily need to use."

Researchers said that parents who speak two languages at home can set their worries aside.

"Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways," Werker concluded.

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