How do babies distinguish between two different languages?


RESEARCH shows babies begin to learn language sounds before they’re even born. In the
womb, a mother’s voice is one of the most prominent sounds an unborn baby hears. By
the time they are born, they recognise mother’s language and are capable of distinguishing
between languages they are exposed to.

Language learning depends on the processing of sounds. All the world’s languages put
together comprise about 800 or so sounds. Each language uses only about 40 language
sounds, which distinguishes one language from another. At birth, the baby’s brain has an
unusual gift, in which they can tell the difference between all 800 sounds. Can a baby’s brain specialise in two languages?

Speech developmental research found some key differences between infants raised in
monolingual versus bilingual homes. At 11 months of age, just before most babies begin to
say their first words, the brain recordings revealed that babies’ brains become tuned to whatever language or languages they hear from their caregivers. A monolingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of one language, and a bilingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of two languages. By 11 months of age, the activity in the baby brain reflects the language or languages that they have been exposed to.