Flexible Learning of Multiple Speech Structures in Bilingual Infants

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Science  31 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5940, pp. 611-612
DOI: 10.1126/science.1173947

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Young and Flexible

How an infant learns to understand and speak a language remains a deep scientific mystery even though millions of kids accomplish these feats each year. Furthermore, this learning capacity is apparently not even taxed to its utmost; children who grow up in bilingual families learn two languages just as rapidly as those who learn only one. Kovács and Mehler (p. 611, published online 9 July) have assessed the cognitive flexibility of preverbal 1-year-old children raised in monolingual versus bilingual households and find that the bilingual group displays an impressive facility in handling inconsistent, language-like, inputs. That is, the kids exposed to two distinct languages since birth were able to associate two distinct syllabic structures—AAB and ABA—with looking leftward and rightward, whereas the monolinguals could only do so only with the simpler AAB structure.


Children acquire their native language according to a well-defined time frame. Surprisingly, although children raised in bilingual environments have to learn roughly twice as much about language as their monolingual peers, the speed of acquisition is comparable in monolinguals and bilinguals. Here, we show that preverbal 12-month-old bilingual infants have become more flexible at learning speech structures than monolinguals. When given the opportunity to simultaneously learn two different regularities, bilingual infants learned both, whereas monolinguals learned only one of them. Hence, bilinguals may acquire two languages in the time in which monolinguals acquire one because they quickly become more flexible learners.

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