Media Releases

U of T study finds toddlers ‘surprisingly sophisticated’ at understanding unfamiliar accents

April 16, 2014

TORONTO, ON — A new Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to study has found that by two years of age, chil­dren are remark­ably good at com­pre­hend­ing speak­ers who talk with region­al accents the tod­dlers have nev­er heard before.

Even more strik­ing, say researchers, chil­dren as young as 15 months who have dif­fi­cul­ty com­pre­hend­ing accents they’ve nev­er heard before can quick­ly learn to under­stand accent­ed speech after hear­ing the speak­er for a short time.

“Fif­teen-month-olds typ­i­cal­ly say rel­a­tive­ly few words, yet they can learn to under­stand some­one with a com­plete­ly unfa­mil­iar accent,” says Eliz­a­beth K. John­son, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Psy­chol­o­gy depart­ment. “This shows that infants’ lan­guage com­pre­hen­sion abil­i­ties are sur­pris­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed.”

The researchers want­ed to study if and how chil­dren in the ear­ly stages of learn­ing their first lan­guage come to under­stand words spo­ken in dif­fer­ent region­al vari­ants of their native lan­guage. North-Amer­i­can Eng­lish sounds very dif­fer­ent­ly from Aus­tralian Eng­lish, for exam­ple. And even with­in North Amer­i­ca, peo­ple often pro­nounce words dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on the region they grew up in. This is the first study show­ing that infants this young rapid­ly adapt to the way peo­ple from oth­er areas speak and the find­ings illus­trate the great devel­op­men­tal steps chil­dren take with regards to lan­guage com­pre­hen­sion.

“Adults with many years of lan­guage expe­ri­ence typ­i­cal­ly get bet­ter at under­stand­ing unfa­mil­iar accents over time,” says Marieke van Heugten, for­mer Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to grad­u­ate stu­dent and now post­doc­tor­al researcher at the Lab­o­ra­toire de Sci­ences Cog­ni­tives et Psy­cholin­guis­tique in Paris, France. “These stud­ies show that infants, who are still in the process of fig­ur­ing out their native lan­guage, pos­sess sim­i­lar abil­i­ties from very ear­ly on.”

The find­ings are based on two stud­ies by the researchers that have been recent­ly pub­lished in The Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy: Gen­er­al and in Lan­guage Learn­ing and Devel­op­ment.

Online links to stud­ies:


For infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Marieke van Heugten
Lab­o­ra­toire de Sci­ences Cog­ni­tives et Psy­cholin­guis­tique
CNRS/EHESS/DEC-ENS, Paris, Tel: +33–6‑95–45-09–37
NOTE: Paris is six hours ahead of New York/Toronto time.

Dominic Ali
Media Rela­tions Offi­cer, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Tel: +1–416-978‑6974