Studies show that up to the age of five or six months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds of native language and foreign language. But between six and twelve months, they lose the ability to distinguish the phonemes that are not part of their parents' language, the language they hear (or see) every day. [Ref]
A study suggests that five-month-old infants have preferences for native speakers and native accents. "In a study of older infants shown silent videotapes of adults speaking, 4-month-olds could distinguish different languages visually by watching mouth and facial motions and responded with interest when the language changed." Ref
One day as my colleague Sandra and I sat down, Sandra started talking in ASL and I was listening. Typically, I would check on Juli (age 0;5) whenever I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye but disregarded typical small movements.
But, several long minutes had passed by without any slight movement. It was so unusual. I quickly glanced to check on Juli and found her sitting completely still and intensely observing Sandra.
Half hour already passed by and Juli remained completely quiet and attentive before Juli finally made a fuss.
Then, we moved to the family room where Juli could play in her play station. Sandra and I continued our talk while Juli kept herself occupied, facing in the opposite direction.
Again, several minutes had passed by, all undisturbed. I quickly checked on Juli and she was still largely occupied in the opposite direction. I continually checked on her every several minutes. Unchanged, I found her strangely silent and still. It was so unusual.
Finally I decided to follow Juli's gaze toward the reflective television screen in front of her. The moment our mutual gaze locked in the reflection, she grinned ear to ear. She had been watching us through the reflection on the televsion screen.
Likewise, a few weeks ago (0;5,1), my visiting mother listened as I talked in ASL while she was holding Juli on her lap forward-facing me. For a straight non-stop, Juli sat still and intensely concentrated on me.
My mother was distracted by Juli's complete motionless with her focus on my signing. She told me, "Look how still she is!" I quickly acknowledged and continued on to catch up with the news as much as I could before Juli stirred fuss.
This behavior of unusual intense focus puzzled me. Why did Juli watch so closely when one was talking in ASL lately?
Studies suggest that babies can understand basic words of a native language at a much earlier age than previously thought. And, they pay attention to small details in surroundings. At this stage, vision improves with the ability to detect small details.
These were the clues. Juli did begin to notice a tiny object on the floor lately. Could it be also that Juli had the ability to detect subtle details of facial signals and movements?
Video clip: The baby Juli paid close attention to her mother conversing in adult talk.
In this video clip, each time the hearing worker (in blue shirt) vocally spoke, the baby (age 0;9) turned her attention to a Deaf person who manually spoke in ASL. Not only ASL was her first language, but also eye/sight was her first modality of language.
Fast-forward to age 2 more or less, a woman stopped by to say to Juli who sat in the stroller. Juli replied in ASL. The woman was suprised and confused. She again vocally spoke and Juli replied in ASL. Third time, same. She was confused and lost, moving on her walk. This amused me.
Well, Juli (age 4;2) wouldn't let me go out without her for a long period of time so she had to go anywhere I go. We agreed to a deal and she was happy with it. Even without this deal, I'd take her out anyway to expose ASL to her.
Video clip: Hey, pay attention to the presenter.
The ASL words and phrases that I used with Juli this week are as follows: sweet potato, carrot, kiwi, cook... and the past usuals.
Related post: baby understanding words.