Five-month-old babies prefer their own languages and shun foreign accents

Discriminating against people who do not speak your language is a big problem. A new study suggests that the preferences that lead to these problems are hard-wired at a very young age. Even five-month-old infants, who can’t speak themselves, have preferences for native speakers and native accents.

The human talent for language is one of our crowning evolutionary achievements, allowing us to easily and accurately communicate with our fellows. But as the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel relates, linguistic differences can serve to drive us apart and act as massive barriers between different social groups.

The Tower of Babel story highlights the conflicts that can arise when people don’t speak the same language.These barriers can give rise to linguistic discrimination, a far more insidious problem that it seems at first. Language-based prejudices have led to horrific acts of human abuse, and even civil wars. Genocide often finds itself paired with linguicide, since a race can be killed off more thoroughly if their language follows them.

Even today, people in a linguistic minority can find themselves denied access to healthcare, or at a disadvantage when looking for jobs. The issue cuts to the heart of several ongoing debates, from the role of second languages in education to whether immigrants must become fluent in the tongue of their host country.

Early preferences

It should therefore be unsurprising to learn that we have strong preferences for our own language and for those who speak it. But Katherine Kinzler and colleagues from Harvard University, have found that we develop these preferences from an incredibly young age, before we can speak ourselves, and well before we can even hope to understand the social issues at stake.

Kinzler tested 24 infants, aged 5 to 6 months, from households that only spoke English, to see if they had any linguistic preferences. Each toddler watched videos of two women, one speaking English and the other, Spanish. The women were all bilinguals and swapped the language they used in different trials to make sure that the babies weren’t showing preferences for physical traits like skin colour.

The babies were then shown the two women side by side, but no longer speaking. They strongly expressed their preference for the English speakers by gazing at their screen for a longer time (measuring gaze time like this is a standard test used by child psychologists).

Once developed in early infancy, these preferences stick around into childhood, and most probably well beyond that. In very similar experiments, Kinzler found that older infants (10 months or so) prefer to accept toys from a woman who spoke their native language.

Even young infants can discriminate between their language and others.The babies, from either Boston or Paris, were shown alternating films of an English or French-speaking woman, who spoke for a while and then silently offered the child a toy. Two real toys then appeared on the table in front of the infant, and they were twice as likely to pick the one in front of the native speaker.

So even though the offering of the toy involved no spoken words, the infants still gravitated towards the woman who had spoken earlier in their familiar tongue.

Different accents

Infants can even pick up on subtle differences in dialect. Even when two speakers are talking in the same language, 5-month old infants will prefer someone who speaks with a native accent to someone who speaks with a foreign twang. Older children (5 years or so) will similarly prefer to befriend another child who speaks with the same accent.

At that age, children will have barely any understanding of the social circumstances that leads to different groups of people speaking the same language in different ways. And it’s unlikely that their parents had much influences, since even the 5-month-old toddlers had these preferences.

These early preferences can act as the foundations for more destructive behaviours and conflicts later on in life. But we must be very careful – an instinctive basis for a behaviour does not in any way justify it.

Instead, by telling us about the basis of linguistic prejudices, these results suggest that we must work even harder to overcome them. If they are hard-wired from an early age, then education from an early age seems like a sensible first step.

Perhaps, exposure to multiple languages early in life can soften these preferences, and it would be fascinating to see if the same results hold for babies from bilingual households.

More on languages, child development, and social conflicts:
Babies can tell apart different languages with visual cues alone
Experience tunes a part of the brain to the shapes of words
In conflicts over beliefs and values, symbolic gestures matter more than reason or money

Reference: Kinzler, Dupoux & Spelke. 2007. The native language of social cognition. PNAS 104: 12577-12580

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

About these ads

6 Responses

  1. it explains so much.

  2. Strange. I was listening just today to a woman speak “improper” English to her very young kids when the thought crossed my mind those kids might grow up to be unfairly deprived of many opportunities for no better reason than they had learned the “wrong” speech habits. I couldn’t quite fault the mother for that, for, in most respects, how we speak is like any other mere appearance — superficial. Your article explains all too well why something superficial is of so much importance to us.

    By the way, I wonder, Ed, if these preferences evolved in us due to any direct selective pressures for them, or if they are rather a byproduct of selective pressures for something else?

  3. I’d heard it referenced so many times but I never actually knew the tower of Babel story. Odd to think of God as divisive.

    What is that first picture? Is that a depiction of the Tower of Babel? I like it.

  4. Yeah, it’s by Peter Brueghel. I love the colours in it.

  5. Amazing research findings!

    But I could not help to notice that they had only 24 infants – a bare statistical minimum.

  6. Paul – I’m going to go with selective pressures for other things. You could suggest, for example, that a preference for people who sound/look like you promote group cohesion and greater fitness over time. That’s just an off-the-top-of-my-head idea – the more hardcore evolutionary biologists reading this may have better explanations.

    Sandesh – true and it’s a weakness, certainly. Obviously, studies with infants have much larger recruitment problems than those with adults.

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38 other followers

%d bloggers like this: