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Bilingualism Might Begin in the Womb

Newborns of moms who spoke more than one language paid attention to both, study found,,

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 17 (HealthDay News) -- The sound of two languages spoken regularly during pregnancy might encourage babies to tune in to both tongues soon after birth, a new study finds.

A team of psychological scientists at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in France, watched the sucking reflexes of newborns born to either monolingual English-speaking women, or women who spoke both English and Tagalog, a language native to the Philippines.

The researchers explained that increased sucking behavior indicates newborns' interest in a particular stimulus, including spoken language.

The team found that babies born to monolingual mothers exhibited increased sucking behaviors when they heard English, but not Tagalog, while infants born to the bilingual mothers showed interest, regardless of which of the two languages was being spoken.

A separate experiment suggested that infants could tell when a speaker switched from one language to the other. That's important, the team said, because it shows that from the very start babies born to bilingual mothers do not confuse the two languages.

"Monolingual newborns' preference for their single native language directs listening attention to that language," the researchers wrote. "Bilingual newborns' interest in both languages helps ensure attention to, and hence further learning about, each of their languages."

The study findings were released online Jan. 29 in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Psychological Science.

More information

There's more on early childhood development at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

-- E.J. Mundell

SOURCE: Association for Psychological Science, news release, Feb. 16, 2010

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