Foreign babies and language

There’s this really old joke:

A man sees a friend in a bookstore buying Japanese language tapes.

Man: Why are you buying those? Are you going to Japan?

Woman: No. My husband and I are adopting a Japanese baby and we want to be be able to understand what she’s saying when she grows up.

Bad joke, I know. I recall reading an article some time ago about a study done on babies born in one country and being rasied in another country where the language is different. The study suggested that the babies could pick up on the language of the country of their origin faster than a native baby could learn a foreign language.

Anybody remember this?

Sounds like something I heard in Anthropology in University.

I’ve never seen any evidence though. My co-worker(who is white) has a Korean sister who they raised from birth. She learned English at the same rate as a white baby and doesn’t know anything about Korean.

Language-wise, it seems that babies are clean slates, just looking for any language to express themselves.

sounds like a crock. Babies start from scratch and language comes from the environment.

What I have read is evidence that suggests a child that speaks a language fluently before the age of 2, has a high probability of being able to sound like a native speaker when an adult (even if they are not in fact fluent as an adult).

My 5 year old speaks Mandarin as her best language, English second and Shanghaiese as a distant third.

I seriously, seriously doubt that a baby would show preference in terms of learning one language or another.

However, there was a study done (sorry, no cite on hand) that showed that babies do recognize their mother’s language when very, very young–way before they start actual language-learning, IIRC, the theory being that they are used to hearing those sounds in the womb.

Sorry I can’t find a site, Mainly because its too late, and I need to go to sleep. But, in my early child development class I read that prior to learning their cradle language infants make every sound used in any language.
There have been several studies that show children exposed to a second language while they are learning to speak are able to learn the second language much easier than children not exposed, even if that second language is withdrawn before the child has its full complement of words to speak.
Ok here is one and here is another site that touches on it. take what you can from them and use that to search further.

And if the baby doesn’t speak at until 3? (I’m referring to myself here actually)

doesn’t speak at all

I meant to say.

I’ve heard that is the origin of baby-talk “babble” - during this babbling, babies actually make every sound in every language, then as they eventually learn a real language, the ability to make sounds non-native to that language will atrophy. I guess this ties in with small infants being able to sound like a native speaker in an introduced second language.

Is Shanghai that much different than Mandarin? Or are there a few main changes, like a lack of an ‘er’? I’m heading there in a month, so it would be nice to know how to adapt a little.

Conan, if you don’t understand people speaking, it’s not because of your mandarin skills. Shanghaiese is incomprehensible to most Mandarin speakers. You’ve really got to work at it. Not a case of just dropping the “er” sound off of Beijingese or anywhere close to broadcast Mandarin.

Good thing is that most people these days speak pretty good mandarin in Shanghai.

Heck, if you’re coming from Jinan, you should already understand that local dialects are pretty incomprehensible.

My limited experience of babies in a multilingual household are that they tend to start speaking later than in a monolingual household. But once they start to speak, they really develop quickly in multiple languages. I think it was around 2 years old that my daughter started to understand that there were different languages. She just knew grand parents/elderly spoke one way (Shanghaiese), Mom spoke another (mainly Mandarin although she is a native shanghaiese speaker) and caucasians spoke English. She used to just naturally switch between the 3 languages based on age and race - naturally associated one language with one speaker profile.

Heck, I know some Koreans who moved here in 2nd grade who are completely unaccented and idiomatic. I even knew a Russian in high school who had lost his accent even though he only moved here at 10.

Mrs. Shibb has no accent, she moved here when she was ten. I’m sure you can move here at an even later and be totally accentless.

It’s generally thought that most people can’t learn to speak a new language w/o an accent once they are past puberty. I’m sure there is a lot of variation among people (like most traits), but it’s undeniable that very, very few adults can learn to speak a new language w/o an accent and that virtually any child can.

Mister Mace is correct. The way I heard it is that at about the age of 11-14 or so is the cutoff point for speaking another languages like a native. Henry Kissinger is a famous example - he and his younger brother (by a year or two) came to America when Kissenger was about thirteen. Dr. K has that Dr. Strangelove accent, while his brother has no accent at all. Part of it has to do with muscle memory, and a large part of it is psychological. Just yabbering at your kids in whatever language you choose actually works well - that’s how kids learn any language. Once you get towards the age of puberty, self consciousness intrudes.

Yes! Several years ago, I worked with a doctor who was born in Chile. His family moved to Kansas when he was 11. They enrolled him in public school in a place where ESL was unheard of. When I knew him, you would never know he hadn’t been born right there.
I knew him in the 70’s, he was 27, so late 50’s in Kansas. I was in awe.

I’ve read that at a very early age, our brains can understand the sounds of pretty much any language spoken fairly easily, but as our language skills develop we lose this ability and concentrate only on the sounds in the language we learn to speak. This is why folks who speak certain oriental languages have problems with the english “L” sound. Their language doesn’t have that sound, and their brain actually loses the ability to process it as they get older.

I seem to recall this loss of sound skills as happening at a much earlier age than the 11 to 14 ages from previous posters, more like around ages 5 to 8. Or, maybe the process starts around ages 5 to 8, and is completed around 11 to 14. After this happens, they have proven that different areas of the brain are activated when you learn a different language, so it’s more difficult to learn a language after this age because your brain does it differently. An oriental adult learning the “L” sound actually learns it differently than an oriental child would, if they were exposed to it.

A baby adopted from another country would be able to learn the language of that country more easily, but only if it spent enough time in that country to learn a lot of the sounds and the base skills required to make the language. I don’t think they would have to know the language itself, just have some roots of it stored in their brain prior to when this switchover of how we learn languages occurs. Just being born there wouldn’t be enough to do it though. The baby needs to spend enough time their to have a few things about the language stored in their brain.

Another good example would be the french “R” for which there is no american equivalent (as my high school french teacher put it, combine the sound of an R with hacking up a furball). A baby born in France would have to be there long enough to learn and recognize that sound before coming to America. Then if it tried to learn French later, it would know this sound already, and wouldn’t have to struggle to learn it.