In a Bilingual Household Who Controls the First Language?

If you’re raising your child to speak two or three languages simultaneously, then who dictates the child’s first language?

This is a common question I’m often asked by parents who speak different languages to their child. For my son, since I only speak English, his first language was no surprise. But, for my friend who speaks English and Spanish to her infant daughter, the first language may be a bit more up in the air.

According to Janet Werker — a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-authored a study on how babies separate languages — infants can grasp the differences between languages when they are as young as seven months old.

Mother with Biracial Child Coloring

In her study, Werker focused on the grammar and particular aspects of different languages in order to understand how young children managed to master languages as distinct as English and Japanese, almost simultaneously.

She used opposing word orders in each language. For example, in English, we use terms such as “The” or “With” before a noun word like Sheep or Snake; in Japanese, the noun or “content word” comes first. Similar to this: English = The Snake. Japanese = Snake the. Also, in Japanese, the content word also has a higher pitch than in English.

For this study, Werker and her team exposed a group of infants to 11 made up words that were designed to mimic the structures of the English and Japanese languages.

The results were a bit perplexing. She found that about half of the children heard words based on their differences in pitch and while the other half heard words with different durations. Nevertheless, all of the babies recognized they were listening to two separate languages.

So the moral of this blog is not to fear! While your child may be getting a boost in another language from a parent or a caregiver, they will still be able to develop English speaking and comprehension skills.

Baby with Mother Reading Book

Depending on the frequency of the language exposure, generally the language that the child hears most often in a variety of contexts (i.e. at school, at home, during activities, etc.) may be more likely to become their dominant or first language. If we are to take any conclusions from a study like Professor Werker’s, it is that bilingual children recognize how to separate both languages.

If your child is like my friend’s who may be getting about equal exposure to English and another language then, Werker’s study makes it clear to that even your young infant can easily distinguish both languages and build comprehension in both simultaneously.

Werker’s study also helps shed some light on a few more aspects of this language learning process, especially concerning the difference in language separation and perception between monolingual and bilingual babies.

“Bilingual infants seem to watch talking faces more closely than do monolingual infants and hence may use the visual cues in talking faces to provide another clue as to which language is being spoken. Studies in other laboratories show that bilingual infants look more at the mouth than do monolingual infants (who look mostly at the eyes, particularly by ten months of age), providing, even more, information that they are tracking ‘phonetic’ properties in facial movements. In current work we are also exploring the hypothesis that bilingual infants who grow up in bi-ethnic homes might be able to use ethnicity in the face as a cue to the language that will be spoken.” –Werker said in a Q&A with Psychology Today.

If you have any bilingual-related questions, send them our way, and we would be happy to do the research for you. Take advantage of our chat feature on the website, or feel free to reach out to me directly at llacey@our21stcenturykids.com.

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