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My 4 week old newborn likes the sound of background noise (eg. white noise, radio, TV) to get to sleep.

I also want to give my child the best chance to learn a foreign language when they are older. Unfortunately I don't know any foreign languages so I can't personally teach her.

I was thinking that since the baby likes background noise, when she's asleep, I was thinking putting on some radio or recordings of people talking to lots of different languages.

Obviously I'm not going to expect that she'll be able to speak that language, but I was thinking that by exposing her to lots of languages, she can get used to the sounds and when she's old enough to learn a language, it may be easier for her to pick up the language if she chooses to learn.

I don't have a language in mind - which is why I want to expose her to the most popular ones (eg. Mandarin, Spanish, French)

Is this likely to 1) help her with learning a foreign language 2) not have any effect whatsoever 3) be detrimental (somehow?) to the child's language development

Anecdotal evidence is fine, but any reference to actual studies would be great.

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Interesting question.

I think you'd need to split up the question a little further. Most of my answers rely on Lise Eliot's book What's Going on in There, which I unfortunately returned to the library on Friday, so I'm only able to paraphrase the few things I remembered or made notes of.

Will she be able to learn to speak another language?

As you already expect, no, she won't. Babies won't pick up any language if they aren't directly spoken to, if they cannot relate to what is talked about (p.386).

Will listening to other languages on the radio or tv help her with languages in a more general sense?

Possibly. Eliot mentions somewhere in the book that babies are able to distinguish a wide array of sounds, but that, as time goes by (by or starting around 6 months), they loose the ability to distinguish those sounds that don't appear in the language(s) they are hearing. One example she gives is that Japanese babies are able to distinguish the English letter R from other sounds in a way that many Japanese adults cannot as that sound doesn't exist in Japanese. However, this ability will be lost when the baby figures out that it won't need those sounds, so even if you exposed your baby to any specific language for the next two years, and she'd then start to learn that language a few years later, she will likely have lost the ability to distinguish the sounds of that language.

Also, for a baby, listening to foreign languages in the background may not be any different than hearing white noise - it's quite possible that they will need to be able to relate to what is spoken not only to grasp the meaning but also to understand that the sounds are part of a spoken language. I'm not sure if you'll find a lot of information regarding this aspect, as most research is geared towards actually learning to speak a language, and not building up an acquaintance with the language's sounds without acquiring active language speaking skills.

Anecdotally, listening to the radio (even though I didn't understand a single word in the beginning) actually helped me quite a lot when I learned a new language in my twenties - but I was 25, followed lessons in that language, and I was awake and consciously listening, which are very different circumstances from what you are envisioning.

Will listening to the radio or tv while sleeping have any effect?

I doubt it. If it had, listening to maths and physics lectures would pretty much be part of most people's sleeping habits, I guess. On the contrary, being exposed to constant noise, especially if it's as agitated as many tv or radio shows are, might actually be quite disruptive to your baby's sleep. I'm not sure if monotonous white noise is less disruptive or maybe even not disruptive at all (if quiet enough), I'd be interested if there are any studies regarding this aspect.


Eliot argues strongly for engaging your baby in conversation - talk a lot to them, both in terms of quality as well as quantity, listen to them, use age-appropiate language, speak clearly, make language learning fun, read to them, etc, and continue doing so throughout their whole childhood and youth.

Having a strong foundation in one's own mother tongue is beneficial to learning other languages, so if I were you, I would actually focus on that. Also, if you really want to help her learn a foreign language, start learning one yourself - not because you can then conversate with her in that language later on, but because there's nothing so motivating like a parent who demonstrates that learning foreign languages is a fun and natural thing to do!

  • "most research is geared towards actually learning to speak a language, and not building up an acquaintance with the language's sounds without acquiring active language speaking skills" there's actually lots of research on the very early stages of language acquisition, including a ton of studies on how infants learn speech sounds. Some cites in my answer, and I'm happy to provide more if you're curious. – Rose Hartman Mar 6 '17 at 2:20
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Most evidence suggests that infants do not pick up information about language sounds from listening to recorded speech alone (although it can be helpful for older children). One very high-quality study on this topic randomly assigned 9-month-old infants who were hearing only English at home to a) a group that interacted in person with a native Mandarin speaker, b) a group that saw videos of the native Mandarin speaker, c) a group that just heard recordings of the native Mandarin speaker talking, or d) a control group where they were exposed to English. The infants participated in 12 language sessions, each 25 min in duration, scheduled over a 4-wk period. The group that just heard recordings of Mandarin is the closest to what you're asking about in your question.

You can see from this figure that infants who had in-person interactions with the native Mandarin speaker did quite well at successfully distinguishing the Mandarin speech sounds when tested later (the bar labeled "American Infants exposed to Chinese" in the graph). In fact, their performance is just about the same as 9-month-olds learning Mandarin as their first language (the bar labeled "Chinese" in the plot). In contrast, infants exposed to Mandarin through video or audio recordings perform just like infants in the English control group, who got no exposure to Mandarin at all.

Fig2 from Kuhl, Tsao & Liu 2003

(A) Experiment 1. Effects of live foreign-language intervention in infancy. Mandarin Chinese speech discrimination tests conducted on infants after exposure to Mandarin Chinese (red stripes) or American English (blue stripes) show significant learning for the Mandarin-exposed infants when compared with the English controls. (B) Experiment 2. Mandarin Chinese foreign-language exposure in the absence of a live person (AV or A) shows no learning. (C) Results of the same Mandarin speech discrimination tests on monolingual Mandarin-learning (red) and English-learning (blue) infants.

In your question, you state, "I was thinking that by exposing her to lots of languages, she can get used to the sounds and when she's old enough to learn a language, it may be easier for her to pick up the language if she chooses to learn." This study suggests that she won't have any advantage if her only exposure is recordings. To provide useful early exposure to a foreign language, it has to be in-person.

Note also that brief early exposure alone won't work any miracles. If she doesn't get continued exposure over a long period of time, she might be no better off than if she got no early exposure at all. There's an excellent review article by Prof. Janet Werker on this and related topics; here's a quote from Box 1 of that article:

Early exposure might lead to lasting effects only if there is at least some continuing exposure. Adults learning Korean up to 3–8 years of age, and then adopted into French homes without any Korean exposure were no better able to discriminate Korean-specific phonetic distinctions than French adults (study). However, second language learners of either Korean or Spanish who overheard either language before age 5, and then were exposed for just a few hours a week throughout childhood, were able to maintain native-like discrimination for Korean phonetic contrasts (study) and production for Spanish contrasts (study), whereas learners without this early and continued exposure performed significantly worse.

When you read about the benefits of early exposure, they're often referencing studies of "heritage" speakers (like this one), who have family who speak a different language than they do. A common example is monolingual English speakers raised in the US with extended family (such as grandparents) who speak Spanish as their first language. For many kids in that situation, they hear Spanish only in small amounts and at irregular intervals (e.g. at family parties) and can't speak it well themselves (often, they just know a handful of place names, food names, simple phrases, etc.), but if they decide to study it later in life they do better than students without a family connection to the language. Part of the reason for that may be emotional/motivational (e.g. being more motivated to learn the language because you know it would make your grandma happy and you love her vs. just doing it to fulfill a course requirement), but part of it is also probably the childhood exposure to Spanish, even though it was very little. An important consideration, however, is that their early exposure is reinforced throughout childhood as they continue to have occasional contact with Spanish speakers.

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You already have a very good answer, so I just want to add something:

While children learn to speak only later, there is studies that unmistakingly show that the syllables children hear in their first 6 months do affect their ability to speak them. That means that scientists were able to tell the native language of the parents by what their children babbled at the phase where they start to string syllables. It also means that children who will lose their hearing at the age of 6 months will be much better at speaking than children who became deaf earlier.

So, yes, what languages children hear at a very early age definitely does influence their ability to speak those languages later.

However.

  1. I do not know whether there are studies which even considered anything else than direct speech to the children, and thus do not know whether foreign language background noise is even helpful in that regard.
  2. These are pure statistical findings. There's no reliable cause-effect relationship between exposing your child to a foreign language and its ability to later speak this language. I bet other factors – like the age at which a child is being taught the first foreign language, its exposure to it (staying in a foreign country for a while?), etc. – are more important.

My advice: If you want to, not overexposing your child to background babble can do no harm, and this being foreign babble might do good. Later consider hiring a foreign babysitter and/or try to spend a few months in a foreign country at an early age (just before school is often good) in a way that your child can play with native children. In my experience nothing beats this.

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There's some very strong evidence that just exposing a child to another language, e. g. by background TV brabble, actually delays language acquisition. The key to language learning is not bare exposure to the sounds but actually feedback to the sounds the child makes itself from a parent or caring adult. The cooing sounds babies make at six months are actually early attempts at vowels. Parental feedback is important for babies to reinforce correctly sounded vowels. For more on this matter, see the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

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    Do you have any citations for the "very strong evidence" that background exposure delays language acquisition (presumably the book you link to references studies on this topic)? I have a PhD in developmental psychology, with a focus on infant language acquisition and I don't know what you're referring to. My guess is many other readers don't either. – Rose Hartman Mar 6 '17 at 0:13

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