Fine-tuning language discrimination: Bilingual and monolingual infants’ detection of language switching

Esther Schott, Meghan Mastroberardino, Eva Fourakis, Casey Lew-Williams, Krista Byers-Heinlein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The ability to differentiate between two languages sets the stage for bilingual learning. Infants can discriminate languages when hearing long passages, but language switches often occur on short time scales with few cues to language identity. As bilingual infants begin learning sequences of sounds and words, how do they detect the dynamics of two languages? In two studies using the head-turn preference procedure, we investigated whether infants (n = 44) can discriminate languages at the level of individual words. In Study 1, bilingual and monolingual 8- to 12-month-olds were tested on their detection of single-word language switching in lists of words (e.g., “dog… lait [fr. milk]”). In Study 2, they were tested on language switching within sentences (e.g., “Do you like the lait?”). We found that infants were unable to detect language switching in lists of words, but the results were inconclusive about infants’ ability to detect language switching within sentences. No differences were observed between bilinguals and monolinguals. Given that bilingual proficiency eventually requires detection of sound sequences across two languages, more research will be needed to conclusively understand when and how this skill emerges. Materials, data, and analysis scripts are available at

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1037-1056
Number of pages20
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


  • bilingualism
  • infants
  • language discrimination
  • language switching
  • word learning


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