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Toddlers learn accents from nursery more than parents, researchers say

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 29, 2012

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Toddlers are more likely to pick up accents from playmates at nursery than from their parents, a groundbreaking new study conducted in the Westcountry has revealed.

Scientists at Plymouth University used a database of 3,000 children from the city to reach the conclusions that youngsters are receptive to regional accents, even if they are vastly different from those spoken at home.

The discovery was somewhat surprising, said Dr Caroline Floccia, an associate professor in the university's School of Psychology.

However, she said it was a positive sign that linguistic diversity was likely to be preserved among future generations.

"It might widely, and understandably, be assumed that toddlers pick up their early grasp of language and pronunciation from their parents," she said.

"But this research shows their social context is much more important than people might think, even at such an early age.

"Studies have shown that once they reach the age of five, children are more likely to speak with the accents they are surrounded by at school, but this is the first time it has been shown to apply to much younger children."

The research was carried out by the university's Babylab, which has a database of around 3,000 children from the Plymouth area and has conducted a wide range of research projects looking at children's personal development since it was set up in 2006.

For the study, 20-month-old toddlers were presented with pictures of familiar objects.

Their responses were then analysed as the object's name was read out in the two main accent groups in the English language, rhotic and non-rhotic. Generally in the former accent, an 'r' is pronounced more or less whenever it appears in spelling, while the latter, non-rhotic accent, does not have the 'r' in final or preconsonant positions.

In England, rhotic accents are broadly found in the Westcountry, some parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, while non-rhotic accents include Australia, most of the Caribbean, Singapore and most of the rest of England.

In the study led by Dr Floccia, the children included many whose parents spoke in the local, rhotic Plymouth dialect, but also a number whose parents hailed from elsewhere in the UK and some families where there were two accents spoken regularly.

In all circumstances, the infants were more receptive to the local dialect spoken in the community around them rather than any others spoken in the home.

Dr Floccia, who manages the Babylab as well as teaching on the social and development psychology and contemporary topics in psychology courses at Plymouth University, said it had been an eye-opening study.

"Although infants still spend the majority of their time with their parents, they tend to be influenced more by settings where there are other children present," she said.

"But regional dialects are something people should definitely be proud of and linguistic diversity makes our everyday environment a much more interesting place to be."

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