May 7, 2009

Toddlers can understand different dialects

Children as young as 19 months understand different dialects, researchers in Australia found.

Catherine Best of MARCS Laboratories at the University of Western Sydney, along with colleagues from Haskins Laboratories and Wesleyan University, report the early development of this cross-dialect skill, which they term phonological constancy.

The study, described in Psychological Science, suggests phonological constancy is evident by 19 months of age, but is not yet present at 15 months.

In the experiment, 15- and 19-month-old U.S. toddlers looked at a colored checkerboard on a monitor to hear sets of familiar words or unfamiliar words. They completed two tests, one with their own American dialect, and the other with a Jamaican English dialect.

Children at both 15 months and 19 months listened longer to familiar words than to unfamiliar words in the American dialect, indicating they recognize and prefer words they know, Best said.

However, the 15-month-olds failed to show this preference for the Jamaican dialect, suggesting poor recognition of Jamaican-accented words. However, the 19-month-olds showed the same familiar-word preference in the Jamaican accent as in the American accent, indicating cross-dialect phonological constancy for words.