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Bringing Up Bilingual, Bigoted Baby

• March 14, 2013 • 10:58 AM

imagesTwo studies out of Canada this week suggest that while your cute toddler can already understand grammar in two languages, he or she may be suspicious of difference.

The first study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found children “as young as seven months can distinguish between, and begin to learn, two languages with vastly different grammatical structures.” The study found that infants in bilingual environments quickly learned to identify words that appeared frequently, like “the” or “and” in English, and used them as cues to distinguish which language was in use.

The research included languages with marked differences in grammatical structure, like Hindi and English. The children in bilingual households learned to key in on “pitch and duration cues,” and used that to develop what the researchers suggest is a child’s concept of discrete systems of grammar.

Understanding grammar doesn’t mean they will talk any better or sooner. Which is fortunate, because if nine month-olds could tell us what they are thinking, it might be scary as hell.

Research released the same time by the University of British Columbia, found that infants as young as nine months have begun to “condone antisocial behavior when it is directed at individuals who are dissimilar.”

In what sounds like a scene from a David Cronenberg movie, researchers started by putting a series of babies in front a plate of graham crackers and some green beans and let the kids choose which one they preferred. Then, they had the kids watch a puppet show in which the puppets underwent the same exercise, selecting graham crackers or green beans. Then they let the kids interact with the puppets. The kids not only gravitated toward the puppet that shared its snack preference, but appeared to grow more attached if that puppet then attacked the puppets who had expressed the other food preference. From the UBC summary:

In the experiments, other puppets harmed, helped or acted neutrally towards the puppets with different or similar food preferences. Prompted to pick their favorite puppet, infants demonstrated a strong preference for the puppets who harmed the “dissimilar” puppet and helped the “similar” one – one infant even planted a kiss on the puppet she liked.

These findings suggest that babies either feel something like schaudenfreude – pleasure when an individual they dislike or consider threatening experiences harm,” says Hamlin. “Or babies have some early understanding of social alliances, recognizing that the ‘enemy of their enemy’ is their friend.

The two studies had nothing to do with each other. It would be interesting to run one of the bilingual babies through the puppet experiment, and see if they liked both graham crackers and green beans.

Marc Herman

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