Saturday, June 7, 2008

Learning linguistics in utero and beyond

As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I took a class in psycholinguistics. The professor cited a study in one of her lectures about how babies learn to distinguish between the sounds of their native language even before birth. Language scientists found that French-Canadian babies could tell the difference between the sounds corresponding with the letters "P" and "B" (as defined by Canadian French linguistic standards) from their experience listening to their native language within the womb. Exactly how the researchers communicated these questions and interpreted the responses from the little fetuses did not stick with me, and I have forgotten those details in the ten years or so since I took that course. But what still amazes me is that human babies are wired for language from before birth. We call our first language our "native" language. I think of language-learning skills being "innate". Those word origins relate to the root idea of being "born" but perhaps the words we use should express some of the language-learning that happens prior to birth as well. This week I'm giving some thought to a word that might express in-utero language immersion. If you have any illuminations in this area, and decide to coin a term that is apt for this idea, please let me know.

I have performed some informal research along these lines in our living room, and at the kitchen table. During pregnancy with baby #3, I spoke Catalán on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes I spoke out loud in Catalán with my older children, or read aloud to myself and to our baby #3 in my womb. During the week of my dissertation defense at Columbia, I met with my former Catalán professor, and we chatted in his office. We were both surprised that even since I've been living in Hobart, where the Catalán population is so small I haven't found anyone to practice with yet--still, I could remember plenty to converse on a variety of subjects. Baby #3 in utero kicked and seemed pleasantly soothed by the linguistics taking place around her. Within a few days of her birth, I read some Catalán recipes aloud to our yet-un-named baby girl. She smiled and seemed especially content. I acknowlege that it could be that I'm not that objective about my baby's psycholinguistic abilities, especially considering that this observation took place during the emotionally vulnerable moment of four days postpartum. But perhaps baby Mary really does like the sounds and rhythms of a language that Mommy also likes. I'm open to the possibility.

Last October, at my parents' barn blessing and housewarming party for their new Wisconsin home, (, I met a neighbor of theirs in the little town of Cooksville who researches genetics at the UW Madison. He's also Catalán--and his wife invited me to introduce myself to him in Catalán to see how he would react. At the party, we all enjoyed a nice conversation in Catalán, in which baby Mary was included in the fellowship, so that was another evening of practice for both of us.

The point is this: children learn what they are exposed to. Raising bilingual children is not easy in a culture where one language dominates, and where resources, materials, and relationships with other languages and their speakers takes effort. By nature, we tend to do what is easy. If it's available, we'll give it a try, but if not, most of us are fine with remaining monolingual. Whether pregnant, or baby-wearing, or raising a gradeschooler, I think we as parents have a responsibility to nurture our child's language skills.

I'm grateful for the opportunities I have to immerse my children in Spanish, and to teach other families as well. Yesterday my son told a friend from Colombia that he was wearing "pantalones". Since he's been in the silent period of language acquisition (and in his case, the silent and skeptical period), I'm glad to hear him making some inroads into communication. He decided to talk with my friend. Selfishly, perhaps, I wish he'd also talk in Spanish to me. And in time, perhaps, he will. For now, I'm just glad that he knows what "pantalones" are and how to talk about them in Spanish when he feels like it.

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