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Phonological development and phonological awareness

This article describes how multilingual children process what they hear and the role of visual clues in their learning.
A nursery setting
© University of Reading

An ear for language: listening to rhythm

From birth, children have the ability to process speech and ‘tune in’ to their linguistic environment. In the first six months of life, both monolingual and multilingual infants mainly rely on intonation and rhythm (prosodic information) to do this.

  • Monolingual newborns can already discriminate between the language they were exposed to in utero and an unfamiliar language from another rhythmic class. They can, for example, discriminate between French, a syllable-timed language, and Russian, a stress-timed language. Monolingual newborns can even discriminate between two unfamiliar languages (languages they’ve had no previous exposure to) when they belong to different rhythmic classes. So French newborns can discriminate stress-timed English from mora-timed Japanese, but not English and Dutch which are both stress-timed languages1.
  • Although fewer studies have examined the language discrimination abilities of bilingual infants, research so far suggests that in the first six months of life, bilingual infants are as successful as monolingual infants in discriminating between same language pairs such as English and Tagalog, Basque and Spanish, or Spanish and (Eastern) Catalan. And by the age of 4 months, bilingual infants have started to accumulate information on their native languages that allows them to discriminate between them and unfamiliar languages even when they belong to the same rhythmic class. Bilingual infants can also discriminate between their two languages – whether they belong to the same or different rhythmic classes.

The mouth has it: the role of audiovisual cues

Alongside auditory information, children pick up visual cues when they look at the person speaking to them. After 6 months of age, infants start shifting their attention from the eyes of the speaker to the mouth. Some studies2 have found that monolinguals’ preference shifts back to the eyes around their first birthday. However, studies with multilingual infants have consistently found that their preference remains on the mouth for longer.

Why do you think this is?

Visual cues add to the auditory information by facilitating both language discrimination and speech processing. This may be especially advantageous for multilingual children, who need to do both. Multilingual infants are indeed particularly adept at relying on visual cues when languages are rhythmically closer (eg, Spanish and Catalan) rather than further apart (eg, Spanish and English). This suggests that the harder the auditory task, the more useful the visual cues are3.

Multilingual infants are also able to discriminate between languages by relying on visual cues only for longer than monolinguals. In an experiment using muted talking heads that were switching between their two languages, English-French bilinguals could discriminate between the languages at both 6 and 8 months, while monolinguals were only successful at 6 months. Bilinguals can also detect language switches in pairs of non-native languages at 8 months while monolinguals do not4.

Paying attention to visual cues is likely to be useful strategy in language learning for both monolingual and multilingual children. Infants who pay more attention to the mouth than to the eyes tend to have bigger expressive language skills around their first birthday regardless of monolingual or multilingual language background5.

Spot the difference: telling sounds apart

While infants are ready to exploit prosodic information from early in life, it takes a little longer to focus on the detail of the information in individual speech sounds. By the age of 6-8 months, monolingual and multilingual bilingual children can detect differences between pairs of sounds, even if they are not present in their home language(s). But by the end of their first year, monolingual children’s sensitivity to unfamiliar phonetic contrasts is on the wane, while their ability to discriminate phonetic contrasts in the language they are exposed to is fine-tuned6. This perceptual narrowing is instrumental to lexical development as it allows children to focus on the contrasts that are meaningful and relevant for the language they are in the process of learning.

Despite the difficulties inherent in these studies, they point towards the fact that children who learn more than one language from birth learn to process language in a different way to those who only learn one. And that processing is dependent upon a fine-tuned ability to distinguish different sounds which all children have at birth but monolinguals lose earlier than multilinguals.


  1. Nazzi, T., Bertoncini, J., & Mehler, J. (1998). Language discrimination by newborns: Toward an understanding of the role of rhythm.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24(3), 756–766.
  2. Pons, F., Bosch, L., & Lewkowicz, D. J. (2015). Bilingualism modulates infants’ selective attention to the mouth of a talking face. Psychological Science, 26(4), 490-498.
  3. Birulés, J., Bosch, L., Brieke, R., Pons, F., & Lewkowicz, D. J. (2019). Inside bilingualism: Language background modulates selective attention to a talker’s mouth. Developmental Science, 22(3), e12755.
  4. Sebastián-Gallés, N., Albareda-Castellot, B., Weikum, W. M., & Werker, J. F. (2012). A bilingual advantage in visual language discrimination in infancy. Psychological Science, 23(9), 994-999.
  5. Tsang, T., Atagi, N. and Johnson, S.P. (2018). Selective attention to the mouth is associated with expressive language skills in monolingual and bilingual infants. Journal of experimental child psychology, 169, 93-109.
  6. Werker JF, Lalonde CE. (1988) Cross-language speech perception: Initial capabilities and developmental change. Developmental psychology 24(5), 672.
© University of Reading
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Understanding Multilingual Children's Language Development

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