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You Don't Confuse Your Baby When You Speak to Him in Two Languages
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  • Keep talking to your baby, mom -- in your native tongue (whether that's Tagalog or Filipino dialect) and English! Recent research shows that you’re not confusing your baby when you do.

    “They do not think that ‘dog’ and ‘chien’ [French] are just two versions of the same thing,” said co-author Casey Lew-Williams, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University. “They implicitly know that these words belong to different languages.”

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    Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of researchers showed 24 French-English bilingual infants pictures of familiar objects. The babies then also heard simple sentences spoken in a variety of ways -- either in just one language (“Look! Find the dog!”), mixed (“Look! Find the chien!”), or crossed (“That one looks fun! Le chien!”). The researchers did the same test on bilingual adults so they can compare results. 

    Remarkably, they found that both babies and adults used the same brain processing strategy to figure out what language they heard to comprehend the words. When placed in the Philippine setting, this would imply that your tot has a good idea if the words you’re using are Filipino or English. They don’t get confused! 

    “By 20 months, bilingual babies already know something about the differences between words in their two languages,” said Lew-Williams who is also co-director of the Princeton Baby Lab, where researchers study how babies and young children learn to see, talk and understand the world.

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    And, researchers also found that it was easier and faster for babies (and adults) to understand what was being said when the sentences were crossed (“That one looks fun! Le chien!”). That means the switch between two languages was made after a complete sentence and not in the middle of one. This was also true when the “switch was from the non-dominant to the dominant language,” said the study’s news release.

    “One of the most obvious implications of these results is that we needn’t be concerned that children growing up bilingual will confuse their two languages,” said Janet Werker, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, in the release. She was not involved with the research. “Indeed, rather than being confused as to which language to expect, the results indicate that even toddlers naturally activate the vocabulary of the language that is being used in any particular setting,” she added. 

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    Past research and experts have already said the same thing and given the same advice: don’t be afraid to talk to your baby in two languages. 

    Research published last year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that babies who were already learning to speak two languages -- English and Mandarin were studied in this case -- mastered the rules of language faster than monolingual babies. Plus, they also found that bilingual babies also surpassed their monolingual peers regarding vocabulary as they were able to learn new words more effectively. 

    Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative and professor at Harvard University, shared in a talk on early-childhood development that some bilingual parents might be afraid that their native language will interfere with their child learning English. 

    “It will not,” Ferguson said. “You need to speak to them a lot no matter what your home language is because the basic patterns in human language that they're picking up will facilitate their language acquisition.” 

    The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also stressed that bilingual kids would become proficient in the languages they are taught by the time they're 5 years old. 

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