How easy is it to understand different versions of spoken English? For toddlers still developing their language skills, a new study finds that having to deal with more than one accent in the home can make language acquisition more difficult —at least in the short term.
Living in a multicultural country as big as Canada definitely has its benefits, one of which is being exposed to a wide variety of takes on our official languages. Not only do we get the flavour of regionally developed dialects from coast to coast but immigration brings with it dozens more versions of French and English.
But does that multitude of voices help or hinder our kids’ ability to pick up their mother tongue?
Researchers from the University of Toronto experimented with two groups of youngsters, those aged 24 months and those aged 34 months, some of whom are dealing with more than one English accent in the home.
The researchers tested the toddlers’ ability to recognize common English words and found that the two-year-olds who regularly deal with multiple accents at home actually have less-developed skills in language recognition than their peers who only have to handle one accent in the home.
Yet, when the 34-month-olds were given the same test, the multi-accent exposed kids had caught up to their single-accent peers, displaying on average an equal ability to recognize words independent of accent exposure in the home.
The results are certainly a testament to human adaptability, but more importantly, the difference between the two groups shows that slower or less developed language skills in a two-year-old may not be an indication of long-term problems. Rather, they can indicate a short-term disparity, one that needs to be recognized by child psychologists, say the study authors. “We conclude that monolingual toddlers in some locations may form a less homogeneous population than past work has assumed, a factor that should be considered when drawing generalizations about language development across different populations,” say the study’s authors from the Infant and Child Studies Centre at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, Ontario.
Young and developing brains are like sponges, as we all know, especially when it comes to languages and vocabulary. A new accent can present toddlers with a challenge but it’s one that they quickly overcome. How quickly? A 2012 study from North Park University in Chicago found that when researchers presented two-year-olds with an unfamiliar accent in a rapid word learning test, it took less than two minutes for them to get up to speed.
The variety of English dialects across North America has been put on display by one researcher who has pored over Youtube videos to pick out distinct English dialects across Canada and the United States. Professional linguist Rick Aschmann’s has created an interactive dialect map linked to over 800 samples accounting for the linguistic variety from one end of the continent to the other.
The new research is published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.