Language Preference Starts Early On

My four-year-old nephew David dislikes Spanish. Say “Hola” to him and he’ll scream “Stop it!” Actually, I experimented with some French too, and he disliked it all the same. So maybe it’s not Spanish; it’s any language that’s not his own. Funny thing is, this is fairly normal for kids – even adults.

Generally-speaking, we prefer our native language: 56% of U.S. Hispanics prefer to speak Spanish at home90% of European internet users prefer to surf online in their native tongue; and 72% of the consumers spend most or all of their time on sites in their own language. These statistics come from reports, studies, and surveys about adults and language but there’s also a fair amount of research on children and language – with some surprising conclusions. 

When Does Language Preference Start?

Research by Katherine Kinzler (and her colleagues) answers this question somewhat. Her studies on linguistic preferences in children reveals these preferences are formed early on. One study tested whether 10-month-old children preferred to accept toys from women speaking their native language versus a foreign language; children preferred the woman who spoke their native language. A similar study tested five-month-olds and found the same preference; the native language won out.

But Kinzler’s studies on five-month-old infants isn’t the youngest age that’s been studied for linguistic preferences. A study published in Infant Behavior and Development finds two-day-old infants prefer their native language, which suggests preferences are formed very early in life and continue throughout adulthood. Bilingualism in newborns has also been studied, which studies suggesting the pathway to understanding and speaking two languages starts in early infancy, or even in the womb.

That’s not to say that people don’t enjoy other languages later in life. It’s a matter of which language someone prefers, and the research indicates the native language is preferred starting in infancy. My nephew will probably learn Spanish or another language later on but for now, I think he’s exhibiting the normal human trait of linguistic preference for his native tongue – like pretty much any other kid his age (and younger).

About Team Smartling

Smartling is a software company with the mission to make the world’s content multilingual.