Children under a year old can learn to associate the languages they hear with ethnicity, according to research from UBC.

Published in Developmental Psychobiology, the study examined whether the relationship between language and ethnicity is just limited to older children and focused on babies from Vancouver.

"Eleven months is an age when babies have become pretty sensitive to the differences between their native languages and unfamiliar languages," said Lillian May, a lecturer in UBC's Department of Psychology and one of the study's authors. "By 10 to 12 months, babies are really tuning in to their languages."

Researchers found that 11-month-old children who were shown photos of Asian and white people looked to the faces of people of Asian descent when they heard Cantonese.

"We found that babies at 11 months, when they heard Cantonese, they looked more towards Asian faces," said May.

The authors say it highlights how focused babies are when it comes to their surroundings.

"Babies are really discerning. The effect was found only when babies were listening to Cantonese. When they heard English sentences, Vancouver infants looked equally to Asian as to Caucasian faces, indicating they have already learned that in Vancouver, both Caucasians and Asians are likely to speak English," said UBC professor Janet Werker, another of the study's authors.

To bolster their findings, the researchers also played Spanish to the infants while showing them photos of people of white and Asian descent.

They found that infants looked at both photos, suggesting the babies are picking up on specific language and ethnicity pairings.

"We found that when they heard Spanish, they don't look more at Asian faces, which suggests babies are pairing together specifically Cantonese and Asian faces, likely because that's a pairing babies in Vancouver are exposed to," said May.

Researchers say the study should highlight to parents just how much their children are learning before they say their first word.

"For parents, I think the big takeaway is that even before babies are talking, they are paying a lot of attention to the language and speakers of language around them," said May.