Eleven-month-old infants can learn to associate the language they hear with ethnicity

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Eleven-month-old infants can learn to associate the language they hear with ethnicity, recent research from the University of British Columbia suggests.

The study, published April 22 by Developmental Psychobiology, found that 11-month-old infants looked more at the faces of people of Asian descent versus those of Caucasian descent when hearing Cantonese versus English – but not when hearing Spanish.

“Our findings suggest that by 11 months, infants are making connections between languages and ethnicities based on the individuals they encounter in their environments.

In learning about language, infants are doing more than picking up sounds and sentences – they also learn about the speakers of language,” said Lillian May, a psychology lecturer at UBC who was lead author of the study.

The research was done in Vancouver, where approximately nine per cent of the population can speak Cantonese.

The researchers played English-learning infants of Caucasian ancestry sentences in both English and Cantonese and showed them pictures of people of Caucasian descent, and of Asian descent.

When the infants heard Cantonese, they looked more at the Asian faces than when they were hearing English. When they heard English, they looked equally to Asian and Caucasian faces.

“This indicates that they have already learned that in Vancouver, both Caucasians and Asians are likely to speak English, but only Asians are likely to speak Cantonese,” noted UBC psychology professor Janet Werker, the study’s senior author.

The researchers showed the same pictures to the infants while playing Spanish, to see whether they were inclined to associate any unfamiliar language with any unfamiliar ethnicity.

However, in that test the infants looked equally to Asian and Caucasian faces.

This suggests young infants pick up on specific language-ethnicity pairings based on the faces and languages they encounter.

“Babies are learning so much about language – even about its social use – long before they produce the first word,” said Werker.

“The link between speaker characteristics and language is something no one has to teach babies.

They learn it all on their own.”

The researchers are now probing how babies’ ability to link language and ethnicity might help them with language acquisition.


Infants less than a year old, who have yet to learn language, appear to notice differences when looking at adult women of different ethnicities, a new study by UCLA psychologists shows.

Researchers studied 40 Hispanic infants and 37 non-Hispanic white infants, all 11 months old. The researchers showed them the faces of 18 young women they did not know on a computer screen, two at a time, side-by-side — six African-American, six Hispanic and six non-Hispanic white.

Recording the infants’ eye movements with technology that can track where a viewer is looking, and for how long, the results showed that both Hispanic and white infants looked longer at African-American faces than Hispanic faces, longer at African-American faces than white faces and longer at Hispanic faces than white faces.

“The babies showed such consistent patterns — both the Hispanic babies and the white babies — that it appears that they are aware, at some level, of ethnic differences,” said Scott Johnson, a UCLA professor of psychology and an expert in infant perception, brain development, cognition and learning.

Infant attention to faces both of the same race and from other races remains poorly understood, but is important to understanding development of biases toward in- and out-group members, and, to theories of social cognition and social development.

The goal of the study was to understand Hispanic infants’ and white infants’ attention when shown African-American, Hispanic and white faces.

The differences were not large, but Johnson said they were statistically significant. Each pair of faces was on the screen for four seconds, and on average regardless of the ethnicity of the baby or of the faces on the computer screen the infants looked about 17 percent longer — approximately 1.4 seconds versus 1.2 seconds — at one photo than the other. The research will be published in the February 2017 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Cognition, and is already published online.

Half the infants saw upright the photos right-side-up and half saw upside-down faces. That made no difference in where the babies looked.

The researchers also swapped which photos were on the left and right to make sure it wasn’t a case of babies preferring left or right, and that did not change the result.

Nor did the researchers find that the Hispanic faces were darker than the white faces — in case babies prefer to look at darker faces.

The researchers recorded in detail the parts of the faces the infants were viewing, but found no differences in how they scanned the faces from their own ethnicity compared with the faces from other ethnicities.

The researchers considered a number of possible explanations and found no evidence for them. For example, were some faces more attractive than others?

The researchers had UCLA undergraduates rate the attractiveness of the faces, and those ratings did not explain the difference.

The researchers chose female undergraduates from the three racial/ethnic groups.

Johnson said that he would encourage other researchers to test the study’s findings, including with African-American infants, Asian-American infants and photos of Asian-Americans — which were not part of this study.

The researchers collected data about each infant’s social environment, including the infants’ family environment and their community environment, but these also were unrelated to patterns of attention to faces.

Johnson said the study should not be interpreted to indicate prejudice or stereotypes. “I don’t think this tells us about the origins of prejudices and stereotypes,” Johnson said.

“We didn’t find any evidence in our data for that.”

The first four authors were UCLA undergraduates Anantha Singarajah, Jill Chanley, Yoselin Gutierrez and Yoselin Cordon.

The other co-authors were Bryan Nguyen, a UCLA research associate, and Lauren Burakowski, a former UCLA doctoral student.

Most adults have a better ability to recognize differences among members of their own ethnic group than among other ethnic groups, Johnson said.

Materials provided by University of California Los Angeles UCLA. Original written by Stuart Wolpert. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


More information: Lillian May et al, Who can speak that language? Eleven‐month‐old infants have language‐dependent expectations regarding speaker ethnicity, Developmental Psychobiology (2019). DOI: 10.1002/dev.21851

Provided by University of British Columbia

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