When a baby starts to develop it has the capacity to learn any language on Earth – from the African click languages and the tonal Asian languages, to the atonal European tongues. The complex process of learning it’s native language begins while it is still in-utero, listening to the filtered sounds from the world outside. A newborn can already recognise and will prefer to listen to it’s mother’s language – probably recognising it through the rhythm of natural speech.
While a baby can initially make any of the sounds present in any of the approximately 6700 languages on Earth, it soon concentrates on those required for communication with it’s parents. An adult has lost a lot of the ability to learn or even discriminate such new sounds – think how hard it is to learn a foreign languge past the teenage years. One easy example is the difficulty native Japanese have in saying the English “el” sound – a sound not found in the Japanese language.
So assuming you had a baby and you wanted to give them the best linguistic start in life, you would need to teach them enough languages so that they were comfortable using all the possible sounds in the world’s languages. But how many languages would they need to learn?
Dr Melissa Epstein looked at all the different sounds present in the known languages, and realised that virtually every language contains unique sounds – sounds not found in any other language. Thus it would be impossible for a baby to learn enough languages to know all the sounds.
So if you can’t teach your newborn the nuances of sounds in all languages, how many languages would be a good start?
Dr Epstein suggests teaching them Mandarin, English, Spanish, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, German and Wu. These 10 languages will allow the child to communicate with around 1/2 the world (in their native language). But in terms of language sounds, this will only give them a fraction of the total sounds used as speech around the world.
Perhaps this is why infants concentrate so early on only their parent’s language – to learn more is truly daunting.
DeCasper, A. J. and Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development, 9, 133-50.
Epstein, M. (unpublished) All the Sounds of All the World’s Languages (sounds_of_the_world)
Nazzi, T., J. Bertoncini, and J. Mehler 1998 Language discrimination by newborns: toward an understanding of the role of rhythm. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 24. 756-66.