If you have ever been entranced by a little baby when on holiday in some distant land and tried to attract their attention you may have not got as much response as you thought. A new study has reported that babies intuitively “switch on” to anyone who speaks to them even if it is in “baby language” in a language they have already heard from birth. It seems that babies aren’t as accepting of novelty situations as much as once thought.

Babies Communicate in a Language They Recognise

There have been several theories offered that may help to explain this and the most obvious one is that babies cannot afford to waste too much time on understanding messages they cannot understand. While babies learn languages astonishingly fast, they learn their own native language the fastest and it seems they avoid distracting “unintelligible” noise.

The research, by cognitive psychologists at the University of London, measured brain wave activity in a selected group of 45 11 month old babies, all of whom were from families where only English had been used. The research presented the babies with a woman who explained what an imaginary object did using simple English. The babies were then presented with a Spanish speaker who used Spanish to do the same sort of thing. The electroencephalographs used to test brain wave activity consistently recorded theta oscillations usually associated with adults who were tuned into learning something new. But this brain wave activity did not occur with the Spanish speaker. It’s as if the babies “tuned out” to the Spanish words, even though they couldn’t even speak!

As with a lot of research, these findings only make one wonder what would happen if the situation was just a little different. For instance, what happens when a baby is brought up in a multilingual family or society? Does the baby still discriminate against languages it hasn’t heard, or does it tune in to different languages in general because it has been surrounded by more than one language?

It has been recognised that language learning is easier when you are young. Some people learn languages more quickly than others. Some more talented bilingual or multilingual people go on to make a career out of their linguistic careers. Have professional translators gained their skills at least in part from the time they were babies?