Researchers at the University of Auckland found that infants as young as 13 months old understand that people from different linguistic communities use different words to refer to the same object.
"By that age, infants understand that people who speak different languages do not use the same words in the same way," said researcher Dr Annette Henderson.
"This is the first evidence that infants do not indiscriminately generalise words across people.
"This early appreciation might help infants by encouraging them to focus on learning the words that will most likely be shared by members of their own linguistic group.
"They understand that object labels have shared meanings among speakers of the same language," she said.
In the study, the authors explored whether infants understand that word meanings (object labels) are not shared by individuals who speak a different language.
To test this, infants from English-speaking families in Auckland were first shown video clips that introduced them to two actors speaking a different language; one actor sang popular French nursery rhymes and the other sang popular English nursery rhymes.
Infants were then repeatedly shown a video clip of a French speaker picking up one out of two objects that infants had not seen before, and giving it a novel label (ie, 'medo').
In one test event, infants saw the same French speaker pick up the same object and label it 'medo'; in another test event, infants saw the French speaker pick up the object that had not previously been labelled and label this 'medo'.
Infants looked longer when the French speaker referred to the unlabelled object as 'medo'.
"This suggests that infants apply the rules they have learned of their own language and expect speakers of foreign languages to label objects consistently," said Henderson.
"Infants do not expect to hear the French speaker to use the same label for two different objects," she said.
When infants were shown critical test events of an English speaker using the same label for the same objects as the French speaker had (ie, the object previously labeled 'medo' and the unlabelled object) there was no significant difference in infants' looking times towards both objects.
"This finding shows that infants appreciate that words are not shared by speakers of different languages, suggesting that infants have a fairly nuanced understanding of the conventional nature of language," Henderson said.
The study was published in the journal Developmental Psychology.


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