Even brief exposure to a language can offer bilingual benefits later in life
When my daughter was around one-and-a-half, she started going to a daycare that was run by a native Russian speaker. Many of the other families at the daycare were Russian, and so it was a place of daily exposure to a second language. At home, while we could speak a little Russian, we spoke English, leaving our toddler to try and figure out the two languages at the same time. Russian words understandably lagged behind English, but eventually my daughter was able to speak with a pretty good accent, at least to my non-native ear. Once she left the daycare though, my daughter’s second language quickly faded, and she now says she doesn’t remember more than one or two words, despite having once been capable of simple conversations.
New research suggests that some of that Russian, or at least the sounds required to listen and speak, are likely retained in my daughter’s brain. Rather than track my daughter, studies looked at children born in Korea but then moved to the Netherlands as babies or toddlers. Nobody expected these kids to retain any vocabulary, but tests found that they did hold on to Korean pronunciation when they needed it.
Saying specific sounds
With a pool of both Korean born and non-Korean born Dutch speakers, participant were asked to take Korean language pronunciation tests. While many languages have some overlapping sounds, or phonemes, it’s not unusual that some sounds don’t intersect. In these tests, there was particular interest in “p”, “t” and “k” sounds, which have three variations each in Korean, two in English, but only one in Dutch. Test participants were asked to vocalize these phonemes, and then had their pronunciation rated by native Korean speakers.
The tests showed that children who had had some exposure to native speakers as babies, even for as little as three months, could pronounce the Korean-specific sounds better than people who were first exposed to them later in life. This contracts some language acquisition research that has indicated that these sounds were slowly amassed and mastered a baby’s brain, only being ready for use at around 12 months of age when many people say their first real words. Instead, it seems that even brief exposure to different sounds can make a lasting impression, and that that information can be retrieved later in life.
So if my daughter ever gets back into it, she’ll probably be able to speak Russian with a better accent than I ever will. Even if she doesn’t end up passing for a native speaker, she’ll still have some benefits from having listened to them at an early age.
My three-year-old said: A goat is a коза!
Oh right— he goes to the same daycare, so he’s in the middle of all this as well. We’ll see if he sticks with it or is English-only by Kindergarten too.
Source: Infants Exposed to Languages Can Retain Them Later in Life by Greg Uyeno, Live Science