There is an interesting new study from the University of British Columbia on infant babies’ ability to distinguish, and link, different races and languages. According to UBC (my emphasis):
Eleven-month-old infants can learn to associate the language they hear with ethnicity, recent research from the University of British Columbia suggests.
The study, conducted in Vancouver and published in April in Developmental Psychobiology, found that 11-month-old infants looked more at the faces of people of Asian descent versus those of Caucasian descent when hearing Cantonese versus English—but not when hearing Spanish. . . .
We wanted to determine whether the association between Cantonese language and Asian faces we observed was due to a specific pairing infants learn from their environment, or whether infants may just have a bias to pair together any unfamiliar language with any unfamiliar ethnicity. We conducted a second study where we played English-learning, Caucasian infants sentences of English and Spanish and showed them the same pictures of Caucasian and Asian faces. Here, we found that infants looked similarly to faces of both ethnicities with both languages. Taken together, this would suggest that infants are indeed picking up on specific language-ethnicity pairings, likely based upon those faces and languages they encounter. . . .
The link between speaker characteristics and language is something no one has to teach babies. They learn it all on their own.
One of the study’s authors rightly remarks: “Babies are really discerning.” She goes on to add the results “should comfort parents in letting them know that babies who grow up in a multicultural, multilingual society such as Vancouver learn about that diversity and use it to help—rather than hinder—their language acquisition.”
Certainly, there is no doubt a diverse multilingual environment is good for children’s language acquisition. However, I was more struck by another one of the study’s possible implications: that human beings are hard-wired, virtually from birth, to distinguish between races (visible physical differences reflecting different genetic populations) and languages.
Now why would that be the case? I suggest that this is further evidence that race and language are central to the process of ethnic identity formation. As a child grows up, it learns to identify who is and who is not part of their in-group based partly, indeed, on upbringing and culture, but especially visible racial similarity and common language. That would explain why multiracial and multilingual societies virtually never consolidate as harmonious, unitary nations (witness Belgium, Canada, Brazil, Malaysia, Austria-Hungary . . .), as well as the psychological appeal of nationalism in modern times, that widespread drive since the nineteenth century to develop linguistically-homogeneous nation-states.
Partly, ethnic (and national) identity formation is determined by socialization. Obviously race and especially language play a huge role determining with whom people socialize or what media they consume. (With the printing press and modern telecommunications, we can say that a good deal of socialization is mediated, accounting for Benedict Anderson’s emphasis on newspaper circulation in the emergence of national identity, without dismissing, as Marxists tend to, the deep-rooted psychological mechanisms and cultural/genetic differences underlying national identities.)
I have no doubt that culture or clannishness can further subdivide a particular racial-linguistic group into ethnic sub-groups. (Witness the divide between Serbs and Croats or the innumerable tribes and ethno-religious groups of the Middle East.) However, as a rule, a common ethno-national identity does not appear possible wherever there are differences of language or race—despite the patriotic sentiments coming out of strongly identified non-Whites such as Ilhan Omar.
An in-born drive to develop an ethnic identity – based one’s own race (physical appearance) and language, contrasting with others – and preference for that ethnic group is obviously adaptive. People sharing one’s race and language are, generally, far, far more likely to be closely related to us genetically than racial and linguistic others (especially in a tribal context, where each tribe would be likely to have its own accent or dialect). As human beings are born into the world, those endowed with such an instinct would naturally team up with people with similar appearance and language, and would naturally do better than the lonely souls lacking such an instinct. This would account for the universality of ethnocentrism among humans.
We can add this research to the long list of studies showing infants’ acute sensitivity to racial and linguistic differences. The media is regularly seized by “racist baby” moral panics concerning babies’ ability to distinguish between races and their well-documented preference for their own race (see Newsweek in 2009, Time in 2014, the New York Post in 2017).
Concerning language, one study showed that even newborns cry with their parents’ accent, presumably learned while listening in the womb, showing an ability to not only identify but even mimic an accent. Other studies have found that infants prefer to look to look at speakers of their native language rather than speakers of foreign languages and that young children prefer to be friends with their own native accent over foreign-accented ones.
All this suggests that multilingual and multiracial societies cannot establish a common ethnic or deep national identity for their members. The “love hormone” oxytocin has been linked to feelings of solidarity, empathy, emotional bonding, and racial in-group preference. This suggests that our ‘diverse’ societies will be ones where infants never grow up with the strong feeling of belonging which a common ethnicity provides. These societies are loveless, emotionally dissatisfying, and alienating, but manage to get along mechanically through global capitalism and the welfare state’s ability to guarantee most individuals with a comfortable consumerist lifestyle.