How do babies learn languages?

  • 04/03/2019
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Have a think about being a new born baby for a moment – the bright lights, loud noises, and blurry giants are all you know and see. A baby’s first job is to comprehend all of this, with its small, growing brain; and language is one of the first great hurdles. Communication is limited to crying to begin with, but by 1 year most babies can say singular words and by the age of 3 can express themselves in full sentences. But how can a baby learn a language so easily with a relative lack of brain power? A grown human can struggle with learning French for many years, yet a toddler can have a decent grasp of a complicated language system before they can tie their own shoes.

Children acquire language through interaction. Most parents don’t know how to formally teach a language, but a child will naturally pick up a language that is used the most when around them through their parents, other adults and children; the interaction is key though – a baby will not learn to talk just by listening to the TV or radio. “Baby talk” is another factor in how babies learn a language, as the short sentences/words, exaggerated intonations and repetition work to pull a child along. There’s an argument that a baby’s ability to learn language is genetic, like how a spider knows how to spin a web and that the ability to learn languages at speed quickly falls away once puberty arrives.

So, what about the babies growing up in bilingual households? You would think that maybe a baby would and be unable to differentiate, but recent studies have found this not to be the case. Whilst a baby learning two languages will know fewer words in each, by the age of 3 they are able to understand if someone is speaking a specific language to them. If you’ve been reading our previous blog posts on language, you’ll also know that knowing two languages increases cognitive function… the same rule applies for babies too! The old adage ‘get them while they’re young’ seems fitting.

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