Exposure to More Foreign Accents Helps Children Grow Their Vocabulary Faster, Gamified Science Shows

When learning a language, the more foreign accents a child hears the faster they learn words.

This was observed using some clever science and shows that it wasn’t bilingual children, but children in a language class with multiple accents who learned and remembered new words at an accelerated rate.

Today more and more kids are growing up in multi-ethnic environments, especially in Europe, global cities like Singapore, or for digital working nomads.

“Until now, there was a lack of studies on the influence of regional and foreign accents on children’s learning of new words,” says Dr. Adriana Hanulíková at the German language department at the University of Freiburg.

To fill this gap, the researchers had 88 Freiburg children aged 7 to 11 play a computer game based on the popular card game “Spot It!,” which is known as “Dobble” in Germany. In the game, two identical objects on different playing cards have to be discovered and named as quickly as possible.

For the study, the children played the game on the computer with virtual peers. They spoke either standard German or German with a Swiss or Hebrew accent. The game included six terms that are usually unknown to children of elementary school age.

The study’s game-based design is a particularly suitable tool for this research said Dr. Hanulíková.

“The children learn from other children while playing, not from adults, the latter being the focus of almost all studies to date. In addition, children are required to say and use these words in interaction, not to just passively recognize them. In this way, the experimental design resembles natural learning in everyday life.”

All 88 children who participated in the study were German speakers, some of them bilingual or multilingual. The researchers also asked how often per week each child hears regional and foreign accents.

The evaluation of the experiment showed that the children benefited from long-term experience with different accents: children with this experience found it easier to learn unfamiliar words from other children who spoke unfamiliar accents in this virtual game situation.

This effect occurred especially when children heard both regional and foreign accents in their daily life. Whereas experience with regional accents alone also predicted learning, children who had experience with foreign accents showed, at least in tendency, similar effects. Bilingualism had no corresponding effect.

Further studies are thus needed to investigate in more detail what type of experience in children’s vocabulary acquisition leads to which effects, and how these might differ from the learning of new words by adults, says Dr. Hanulíková.

Having access to a second language improves not only career outcomes, but sets a brain up for better capabilities long-term, from childhood to the golden years. Research has also shown that it doesn’t slow down learning levels during early schooling.

Bilingualism is associated with multiple cognitive advantages, such as increased attentional control, greater working memory capacity, and symbolic representation, in infants, adolescents, and adults.

With the large demand for bilingual education, especially across the anglophone and Chinese worlds, Dr. Hanulíková’s research is vital for understanding the best and most natural environments for this instruction to thrive in the educational system.