Bilingual infants control their languages as they listen

A while ago, I was reading to my son. He’s 20 months old now and his vocabulary expands by the day. He loves to tell me the names of things he sees around him. In the book we were reading, we found an egg. He enthousiastically started saying: “ei, uovo, ei, uovo!” (egg in Dutch and Italian).

Research shows that bilingual infants at 20 months of age implicitly know that words belong to different languages. In my toddlers brain, ‘ei’ and ‘uovo’ aren’t two names for one thing, but the name of a thing in two languages.

Bilingual toddlers don’t confuse their languages

In this research, bilingual infants and adults were shown pictures of familiar objects. While they were looking at the objects, they listened to simple sentences in one language (find the dog) or in two languages (find the chien, trouve le dog). Both the adults and the infants showed higher cognitive effort to the mixed sentences.

According to this research, this means that even the bilingual infants naturally activate the vocabulary of the language they’re listening to at that moment. This also implicates we don’t need to worry that children growing up bilingual will confuse their languages.

Fish and cheese

After his famous ‘nonno Italia‘, my son continued to build little sentences. For the time being, it seems like he naturally puts words from the same language together. When looking at a fish in a book, he says “é pesce” (‘is fish’ in Italian) and his first words when he woke up a few days ago were “kaas eten” (‘eat cheese’ in Dutch).

I think it’s funny that he chooses Italian to talk about fish and Dutch when it comes to cheese. I believe it says more about dad and mom than it says about him…

Copyright picture: Olivier Dunrea (from book Gonnie & vriendjes in ganzenpas)


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