Visual Cues In Language Learning

From HealthDay via Yahoo News: A Canadian study shows that “Infants can tell the difference between two languages without hearing the spoken words, simply by watching the face of the adult who is talking.” This suggests that, “at an abstract and deep level, the learning brain might not be tied to speech itself…” and also supports the belief that “the brain can use multiple cues in language processing and suggests that multiple cues in teaching languages can be beneficial.”

This seems very directly related to language teaching, especially if the point is that it’s good to use materials and methods that “appeal” to the different senses. Many language teachers already do this anyway of course.

However, I am unfortunately a little stumped by the experiment, so if you think you can help me figure it out, please do read on.

It would make sense to start with an explanation of the experiment (or at least it would be interesting to me), but I won’t lie: it’s not clear from the article! However, the people in charge are scientists, so they probably have a good idea what they are doing. I don’t doubt that – I just can’t sort it out myself.

The gist of the experiment is that babies (some from bilingual families? all?) of different ages watch video without sound of adults speaking; it seems that they notice a difference in language even without hearing anything, although this ability is nearly gone by eight months in babies of families where only one language is spoken.

I suppose for the results to be interesting, it would need to be the case that all babies can distinguish, even those who aren’t from bilingual families, and the point is not so much that this ability goes away after eight months, but that visual cues alone matter at all. Before they “know” and can use the language(s), they can recognize it (them).

According to a comment at the end – saying that if they put in a third language in the mix, the babies from bilingual families would react similarly to those from monolingual families and not notice the difference – makes it sound as if babies do in fact need exposure to the language first, before they can distinguish. And I’m not clear with how this fits with the monolingual babies above. Visual cues matter, but only if there is already other exposure to the languages?

Perhaps the real conclusion is just that this is additional information about the brain, and it is just not related to language learning in the direct way I would like it to be, and perhaps not as directly as the article implies. If you get it – let me know!