Marieke van Heugten, University at Buffalo – How Accents at Home Affect Baby Language

Do infants whose parents have different accents learn differently?

Marieke van Heugten, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, discusses the answer.

Dr. van Heugten is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and the director of the Buffalo Babylab. She completed her B.A. and M.Sc. at Radboud University in the Netherlands before moving to Canada where she received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She then held a postdoctoral position at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France. In August 2015 she started her position at the University at Buffalo.

How Accents at Home Affect Baby Language

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When we study language development, we often look at when the average child reaches particular milestones. But this does not take into account the tremendous differences in language input, even between monolingual children.

For example, an American-English speaking mother might call that yellow vehicle that takes children to school a “bus.”  But the same word spoken by an Irish-English speaking father might sound more like “boss.”  These parents label the same object in the same language, but the child still needs to work out how to map those different pronunciations to the same referent.

Now, our research suggests that infants raised in homes where they hear a single language, but spoken with different accents, recognize words dramatically differently at about 12 months of age than children of the same age exposed to little or no variation in accent.

Crucially, this was found even though the two groups of children were matched on the number of words they know.  Both groups of children are learning words at about the same rate, but hearing multiple accents at home changes how children recognize words, at least in lab settings.

Because of this, my co-author and I conclude that monolingual children should not be viewed as a uniform group, as children who hear multiple accents process language differently than those who hear a single accent.

This is important if you think about clinical settings where children are tested.

Speech-language pathologists typically speak in the local variant of the language, but if you have a child growing up in an environment with more than one accent then we need to have different expectations for that child.

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