Bilingual Babies Have Learning Advantages

By
April 15, 2009

Babies who are being exposed to more than one language in the family, actually gain early learning advantages long before they start to pronounce their first words, says a team of Italian scientists. The new findings show that babies of bilingual parents quickly adapt to different learning cues when they are seven month old, before they have begun to formulate words, compared to the infants of parents who speak just one language in the household.

In many countries, and particularly in Europe, parents hesitate to give their children a bilingual education and try to concentrate just on one language, said a study author Jacques Mehler, a cognitive neuroscientist of the Language, Cognition, and Development Lab at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. Parents are scared that the kids might suffer later, when they get to school and so on. "But because of our results, I doubt that very much," Mehler said.

Scientists have known for many years that infants start absorbing some language basics before they can utter words, and that they can distinguish the difference between sounds from two quite different languages. It has been also found in previous studies that using two languages on a regular basis is beneficial for thinking processes among both children and adults.

The results of the new study are based on 40 infants who have been recruited from families in the Trieste area of Italy. Half of the "crib bilinguals" heard Italian and a second language (Slovenian, Spanish, English, Arabic, or Danish) at home. And the other half of the participants were from households with only Italian language as a mother tongue.

The abilities of both, bilingual and monolingual babies, was tested by playing cartoon creatures on a computer screen. The infants were taught to look at one side of the screen in anticipation of a visual "reward" image of a character, after they first learned to associate a sound cue with the image. The visual treat was then switched to the other side of the screen, so that the experts could figure out how quickly babies would learn to switch their anticipatory look to that other side.

The test revealed that babies who belonged to bilingual group beat out a group of monolingual babies in three such experiments, even when the sound cues changed from nonsense syllable combinations to a structured sound cue, and then a visual cue. In all three cases, bilingual babies soon learned to switch their anticipatory attention to the other side of the screen, and easily predicted where each character would pop up, in contrast to monolingual babies, who could not do so.

The bilingual babies' skill applies to more than just being able to switch between languages. "We believe that the enhancement is due more to perception at this age, rather than language production," Mehler said. The expert associated this apparently enhanced cognitive ability to a brain selecting "the right tool for the right operation" - also known as executive function. In this basic process, the brain regulates the abilities such as being able to start and to stop actions, and quickly switches from one learned response to another as situations change.

Whether this early language advantage results in later benefits for bilingual babies still remains unclear. Mehler stressed out that enhanced executive function does not necessarily translate into higher IQ and better intelligence - and in any case, as to monolingual babies, they have plenty of opportunities to catch up with this ability later in their young lives, Mehler concluded.

Full study results are published in the April 13 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.




Tags: Parenting and Families


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