Toddlers ‘surprisingly sophisticated’ at understanding unfamiliar accents

A new University of Toronto study has found that by two years of age, children are remarkably good at comprehending speakers who talk with accents the toddlers have never heard before.

Even more striking, say researchers, children as young as 15 months who have difficulty comprehending accents they’ve never heard before can quickly learn to understand accented speech after hearing the speaker for a short time.

“Fifteen-month-olds typically say relatively few words, yet they can learn to understand someone with a completely unfamiliar accent,” says Elizabeth K. Johnson, associate professor with the University of Toronto’s Psychology department. “This shows that infants’ language comprehension abilities are surprisingly sophisticated.”

The researchers wanted to study if and how young children in the early stages of learning their first language come to understand words spoken in different regional variants of their native language. This is the first study showing rapid adaptation to accents at such a young age and the findings speak to the great developmental steps children take with regards to language comprehension.

“Adults with many years of language experience typically get better at understanding unfamiliar accents over time,” says Marieke van Heugten, former University of Toronto graduate student and now postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique in Paris, France. “These studies show that infants, who are still in the process of figuring out their native language, possess similar abilities from very early on.”

The findings are based on two studies by the researchers that have been recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and in Language Learning and Development.

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3 thoughts on “Toddlers ‘surprisingly sophisticated’ at understanding unfamiliar accents”

  1. The human mind is something that is so powerful and amazing. I agree that while children are young, they’re brains are still developing and it is normal that children learn a lot faster at that age. Being at university, and having to cope with large loads of work- reading this article made me wonder. What would the possibility be to create mediums that could help and keep an individuals brain to continuously develop? I know that we don’t use our brain to even a hundredth of it’s full potential. Wouldn’t life just be so much easier if we had the ability to learn as fast as we did when we were infants?

  2. A possible reason for children being able to comprehend different accents is due to the fact that during younger stages of development there is a high level of neuroplasticity, which has been shown by various tests and studies. Neuroplasticity is defined as:’the ability of the brain to adapt to the specific demands of the environments in which a person spends their waking hours’. Children also possess brains which are in a highly adaptive state which enables them to learn new skills quickly for adult life. For this reason, the way one acts and speaks around younger children in critical as children often imitate the behaviour of the adults around them. This is also the reason why the early stages of schooling are immensely important for children, as a good foundation in literacy and mathematics is essential. The learning abilities of children is definitely another trait of the incredible human mind that is so interesting to investigate.

  3. It is clear that infants have the ability to comprehend their mother tongue, but their ability to recognize diction of the same language in another accent is absolutely phenomenal. Adults often have difficulty understanding accents in the beginning, but as they adapt to the unfamiliarity, it becomes easier to understand. For infants to be able to do the same shows how sophisticated and complex the learning ability is as well as how rapidly it occurs. We still have a lot to learn about the development of our future leaders!

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