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Recommended reading Bilingual babies Stages: Birth to 2 months Stages: 3 to 6 months

Babies are born primed to learn language. They learn from hearing and watching their whānau talking, singing and reading to them, from repeating the sounds whānau make, and from using the language they hear all around them.

Ability with all languages

When they’re born, babies can to pick out the differences between the speech sounds for every language in the world. By the end of their first year, they’re already finding this more challenging. It becomes more difficult for them to tell the difference between the sounds they don’t hear used in the language of their whānau.

Connections in the brain for the sounds they hear over and over again are being strengthened, while the connections for sounds they don’t hear become more fragile and may be ‘pruned’.

Start young

Families who speak 2 or more languages are giving their baby a special gift. It’s much easier to learn a second language in the early years, and particularly easy when a baby hears the sounds for other languages from birth.

Language is learned through interaction

Like all learning, babies learn language through interacting with close family members. Babies needs to hear the family’s languages as part of their everyday life. When parents speak to baby in the language they mostly use, baby learns the natural rhythms, sounds and speech patterns for that language.

Babies learn from ‘live’ language. They won’t learn a language from listening to a sound recording or watching a video. Whānau can help baby learn by using their language to talk and sing to baby, read books and say rhymes to baby, and as part of everyday conversation.

Talking face-to-face with baby not only helps build a close relationship, but it also shows baby the mouth movements that go with sounds. In addition, baby learns about whānau life, traditions and culture from hearing their stories and playing language-based games.

The same language stages at different paces

Although each baby learns at their own pace, all babies go through the same stages of development for each language. When they start talking, they may use words from each language in one sentence. This is very normal. As they talk more, they’ll sort this out. Although they may have fewer words in each language than a child who only speaks one language, they’re likely to have a similar number of words overall.

It may be easier for children who learn a second language in their early years to learn another language later on. By about the age of 7 it becomes more difficult for children to learn another language.


  • At birth, babies can pick the difference between the speech sounds for every language used in the world.
  • It’s much easier to learn a second language in the early years.
  • Babies learn language through their close relationships.
  • Each baby learns language at their own pace.
  • It’s more difficult for children to learn a second language from about 7 years old on.

Further information

  • Center on the Developing Child: Serve and return interaction shapes brain circuitry (web page and video, 1 min 45 sec)

  • Connecticut’s guidelines for the development of infant and early toddler learning (PDF 6.5MB)

  • Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies (TED talk video, 10 min 10 sec)

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