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Parents who want bilingual children should start the lessons early. Really early.

Newborns who were exposed to two languages while in the womb have already begun the process of bilingual acquisition, a new study has found. If that's not enough, babies who are only days old are able to discriminate between the languages.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, reveals that the origins of learning two languages lie so deep that they extend even to the prenatal period.

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"Whatever the mother speaks, if she speaks one language or if she speaks two languages, her baby is going to be prepared to learn one or two languages at birth," co-author Janet Werker, a professor in psychology at the University of British Columbia, said yesterday.

Dr. Werker and her colleagues ran two experiments to investigate language preference and discrimination in newborns. Babies sucked on a pacifier connected to a computer, with increased sucking indicating interest in a stimulus.

Babies whose mothers spoke only English had more sucks per minute when they heard the language, as opposed to when they heard Tagalog. Newborns whose mothers spoke both English and Tagalog regularly during pregnancy showed equal interest in both languages.

Researchers wondered if the babies could distinguish between the rhythm and melodies of the two languages, or whether their exposure to both meant they couldn't differentiate between the two.

The second experiment, however, found that babies could discriminate. Infants listened to sentences being spoken in one language until they lost interest and their sucking per minute weakened. They then heard sentences in the other language, or in the same language spoken by a different person. Infants sucked more fervently when they heard the other language being spoken, a finding that suggested infants can discriminate between the two.

"Babies have a preference for listening to what's familiar at birth. But it doesn't mean that they confuse the two languages if they've been exposed to two languages in utero," Dr. Werker said.

"People are always so afraid that their children will confuse their two native languages, and what this suggests is that even when they leave the starting gate, they have some little mechanisms in place to begin to keep them apart."

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