Does minimal exposure to a second language changes word learning strategies in infants?

Kovacs, A. M.

Cognitive Development Centre, CEU, Budapest

In the present study we investigated the effects of learning a second language in infancy, by comparing three different groups of 19-month-olds: monolinguals, bilinguals, and monolinguals ?enrolled? in a second language course. Earlier work suggests that infants use specific disambiguation heuristics to identify referents for words. According to the principle of mutual exclusivity (ME), infants assume that one object should have one label (Markman & Wachtel, 1988). While ME might be a useful word learning strategy, infants are often exposed to synonyms or to multiple languages. Recent research suggests that multilingual infants apply ME to a less extent (Byers-Heinlein & Werker, 2009). However, it is not clear whether they use the ME principle less because they accept that one object can have multiple labels. Thus, here we compared 19-month-old crib bilinguals, matched monolinguals and infants enrolled in a second language course (since min. six months) in a referent disambiguation synonym task and a ME task. Furthermore, we asked whether limited exposure to a second language (interaction one hour per week, and every day 20 minutes passive listening) would already be enough to change infants? word learning strategies. If infants exposed to a second language (independently whether they have limited or extensive exposure) accept that objects can have multiple names, besides using ME to a less extent, they should be more flexible in accepting that a puppet first named a bunny can be later called a rabbit. The data show that second language learners and bilinguals, in contrast to monolinguals, used ME less and crucially, they accepted more often synonyms as referring to the same object. Thus, already minimal exposure to a second language seems to radically change the word learning strategies of the child, and leads to a flexibility in accepting that an object can have multiple verbal labels.