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Early Origins of Identity: Infants' and Children's Thinking About Language and Culture

Jasmine M. DeJesus, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Zoe Liberman, University of California, Santa Barbara; and Katherine D. Kinzler, Cornell University


Babies are miraculous linguistic creatures. From an early age, they seamlessly master the language or languages in their early environment. Babies’ early language-learning abilities turn out to not just be about language—they are also social in nature, orienting children to cultural in-group members. Infants and young children demonstrate preferences for people who speak in a familiar language or accent, and they selectively learn from those people. In this article, the authors discuss how early social preferences toward language develop, their function for learning about one’s culture and community, and how thinking about language may relate to later social biases. They also examine how children’s attitudes toward speakers of different languages may be flexible based on children’s experiences, including differences in children’s own cultural backgrounds and exposure to diversity. Language is a critical component of identity and culture, and children pick up on this right away.

Infants and young children are experts at learning language. In a matter of just a few years, children can seemingly miraculously turn from babies to proficient speakers of a native language (or languages). Adults often struggle to learn a new language, such as when a college student takes an introductory course, yet young children can master a language or multiple languages without explicit instruction.

This article shows that humans’ remarkable linguistic ability is not just for learning languages: Language is also social, communicative, and critical for identity. From birth, babies begin to master their native language or languages as part of their cultural identity. We first showcase how quickly infants are able to zero in on the sounds of their native tongue. Next, we show how this early attention to “native” lays the groundwork for learning and for social identity. Finally, we discuss how children in diverse linguistic contexts may learn about the social meaning of language in different ways. In sum, language is a critical component of social life. Babies pick up on the social nature of language right away, and the attention paid to people who speak their native language structures children’s early interactions with their social world.

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