Here’s an interesting little story about bilingual babies:

Researchers have recently discovered that infants who live in a home where more than one language is used have the ability to actually distinguish between the two different languages, even before they can talk themselves. A new study has shown that children who learn two languages at the same time develop the ability to identify a language through it’s pitch and tone, whereas those who are brought up with just one language cannot.

During the study through repetition seven-month-old infants were familiarised to one of two fake languages. One resembled the Japanese group of languages and the other English. Then “phrases” of these languages were played for the kids over hidden speakers, both in the language they learned and the one they did not.

The scientists measured the time they looked in each direction. The bilingual babies “looked several seconds longer” in the direction of the language they had been exposed to – a scientific measure of recognition. When the same test was done with monolingual infants growing up in English homes, they made no distinction.

Study co-author Janet Werker has said, “If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game. Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

Years ago I read an autobiographical essay by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in which he commented that long before he understand that Spanish and English were different languages, he knew that he talked one way at home and a different way when he visited his English grandmother. He was bilingual before he understand the concept of “language.”

In a possibly related story: a friend of a friend of mine is a native Italian who lives in Canada with his French-speaking wife. Italian and French are the usual languages around their home, but, my friend has told me, if you go into the house and start speaking English to their children, they’ll speak English back at you — but only after being evidently a bit startled. When my friend asked the parents why the kids look so surprised when he speaks English to them, they replied, “Because you’re not in the television.”