Why infants pay more attention to people who speak their native language

Anyone who’s tried to befriend a baby knows, the very young are a tough crowd. In response to your solicitous babble, a baby might lock eyes with you. Just as likely, though, she’ll stare insistently into an empty distance, spit up, or dispatch you with a wail of protest.

New research suggests that babies are highly selective — discriminating even — in whom they will pay attention to. And even before their first birthdays, this research shows, babies distinguish between “people like me” and all others.

For those of us who like to think that prejudice is a taint that comes with age, this may be disappointing news. But a new study, published Monday in the journal PNAS, offers a fresh perspective on babies’ remarkable ability to distinguish between “in-group” members (“people like me”) and out-group members (“others”) at such a young age.

Babies are all about learning new stuff, the new research concludes. And they won’t waste a minute paying attention to someone they deem unlikely to deliver the goods.

The new research shows that, given the choice of listening to someone speaking in their native language and someone speaking another tongue, 11-month-old babies will consistently ignore the foreign speaker and pay attention to the person speaking the language that’s familiar to them. At the moment that those babies made such decisions, researchers detected a distinctive pattern in their brain activity — a pattern consistently seen in babies expecting to learn something new.

Read more: LA Times

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