We all know that infants don’t actually speak with an accent because they don’t really speak at all. But for a long time scientists presumed that infants’ brains could not process sounds at all. Professor Patricia Kuhl, the director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning at the University of Washington, wanted to test this notion. Kuhl studied infants between six and eight months whose parents spoke different languages, including English, Swedish, Japanese andRussian. Different languages are made of different types of sounds. Native English speakers have difficulty pronouncing the subtle vowel differentiations of French, while native Japanese speakers have trouble differentiating the l and r sounds of English. Because of these variations, Kuhl could test if a child of Russian-speaking families responded particularly to the sounds of the Russian language, or if their reaction to speech did not vary from language to language.
In her experiments, Kuhl observed that the infants were more responsive to the sounds of their own language than to the sounds of other foreign languages—even before they were able to speak themselves. She discovered that babies as young as one year acquire the specific accented sounds of their parents and that the first year of listening makes a lasting impact on the way we speak for our entire lives. As she told Smithsonian magazine, “Our research shows that a kernel of that pattern of speaking begins to form in the brain well before actual production of speech. And by the time the baby’s first words do come, those distinctive characteristics are solidly in place.”
(What exactly is an accent? Find out here.)
This also helps explain why it is difficult for second-language learners to abolish their accents. The sounds of our first language are so primary it is formidable—if not impossible—to learn some sounds of foreign languages.
What do you think of Kuhl’s research? Do you have other questions about language acquisition?