25 Apr 2014

Toddlers Translate ‘Strange’ Accents

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel.

Children as young as two years old have been found to be uncannily adept at “translating” accents they have never previously heard.

But don’t worry – it’s not the prelude to some spooky alien child prodigy attempt to take over the Earth. It is instead the finding of new research into toddlers and how they can understand people who speak in strange accents from an early age.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the claim from scientists from Toronto University concerning infants aged 15 months old. The researchers say that toddlers of this age who have problems understanding accents they have never previously heard can swiftly begin to comprehend accented speech.

This can be achieved just by listening to a speaker for a little while.


What the researchers say

Babies as young as 15 months old seldom voice more than a few words.

But Toronto University’s Elizabeth Johnson believes they can still learn to comprehend another person with a totally unfamiliar accent.

Ms Johnson is an associate professor in the university’s psychology department.

She said this is the first time that a study shows that toddlers’ ability to translate language into something comprehensible is “surprisingly sophisticated”.

Another cognitive expert, Marieke van Heugten agrees.

The Paris-based post-doctoral researcher said that most adults with several years of experience of language naturally improve at comprehending unfamiliar accents with time.

But she said the new research finds that toddlers have comparable abilities from an early stage, even though they are still trying to work out their own native tongues.

Babies born into the world with fundamental language knowledge 

The new findings follow a recent report which showed that infants come into the world born with fundamental understanding of language.

As all translators know, no one language is the same as another. Some traits, however, appear to be shared across languages. Such traits may pop up from linguistic platforms that are functioning in every human mind.

Two questions come out of this: are new-borns biased to consider specific sound patterns to be more word-sounding than other ones? Are babies born with knowledge of how human words may sound like?

The findings led Boston-based Northeastern University Professor Iris Berent to compare human language sound patterns with birdsong.

Prof. Berent suggested that the experiment suggests that these patterns are the result of inborn biological instincts. The professor co-wrote the study with Italian scientists headed by Jacques Mehler.

Prof Berent and Dr. Mehler’s earlier report dovetails nicely with the latest Toronto University one. But what did the new study hope to achieve?


Toronto Study mission

Scientists wanted to examine if and how infants in the formative processes of absorbing their primary language grow to comprehend words uttered in individual regional varieties of their own language.

No previous research has found swift adjustment to accents from so young an age.

The results show the vast developmental strides that toddlers take in language comprehension.

You’re never too young to learn a foreign language?

The massive absorbency of a young child’s mind suggests the prudence of teaching youngsters a second language at the earliest possible opportunity.

Some US parents are reported to have started enrolling their children in second-language classes, such as Spanish, from ages as young as three years old.

Speech expert Professor Erika Levy said children at this age swiftly take in everything they hear. She said they learn to comprehend fresh words over two separate languages “incredibly” quickly. But don’t rule in Midwich Cuckoos-style school lessons in French and German and translation exercises for 15-month-old toddlers just yet.


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