Baby Talk: The Benefits of Bilingualism

To all you new parents out there: if you’re trying to decide whether to spring for that Mandarin-speaking nanny, the answer is yes. Signing up your child for Chinese language kindergarten classes will be far too late.

A study in the Journal of Phonetics about bilingual learning offers new insight into babies and their relationship to the spoken word. Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences compared the brain functions of babies raised in a monolingual household to those raised in a bilingual household, and found that bilingual babies are more likely to maintain their language learning ability for a longer period of time. From the abstract:

Our results suggest that bilingual infants’ brain responses to speech differ from the pattern shown by monolingual infants. Bilingual infants did not show neural discrimination of either the Spanish or English contrast at 6–9 months. By 10–12 months of age, neural discrimination was observed for both contrasts. Bilingual infants showed continuous improvement in neural discrimination of the phonetic units from both languages with increasing age. Group differences in bilingual infants’ speech discrimination abilities are related to the amount of exposure to each of their native languages in the home. Finally, we show that infants’ later word production measures are significantly related to both their early neural discrimination skills and the amount exposure to the two languages early in development.

The first months of an infant’s intellectual life are largely devoted to narrowing down sounds – what is human speech, and what is ambient noise. For example, at 7 months, a monolingual infant can recognize the difference between the Spanish “da” and the English “ta,” but at 11 months, cannot. The recognition of a subtle sound difference is called a “positive mismatch response.”

By around 10 months, babies are already losing their ability to learn new sounds, and therefore new languages. A baby raised in a bilingual house, however, maintains the ability to distinguish different sounds for longer, until 12 months and possibly longer. The researchers write:

Based on the data available at present from our studies, we put forward the hypothesis that bilingual and monolingual infants show a different timetable for developmental change, with bilingual infants remaining ‘‘open’’ to the effects of language experience longer than monolingual infants, a highly adaptive response to the increased variability of language input that bilingual infants experience.

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  1. David Leppik says:

    …except that there are plenty of older kids who learn to speak without an accent, as well as recognize foreign phonemes (language sounds.)

    It’s well established that babies start to specialize on native-language phonemes early in life. However, they can learn to recognize (and produce) foreign phonemes much longer. That ability starts to diminish around puberty, which is why adults have such a hard time picking up foreign languages.

    I started learning German around 10 years old, and learned to speak without an accent. Ever since my daughter started going to a Spanish immersion school, I’ve tried to pick up a little of the language, and it’s tough. She, however, had no trouble picking up the Spanish phonemes in her first week of Kindergarten.

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  2. Simeon Weinraub says:

    So, challenging the human brain more, at a critical developmental stage, results in a more capable brain? That sounds reasonable.

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  3. Scott says:

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  4. Kevin Pritchard says:

    I have often wondered why the English language survived the Norman conquest of 1066. Even now the highest percentage of commonly used words in english language are old English.

    Maybe the hand that rocked the cradle of the Norman barons was an English nanny?

    Maybe is why the English language devoured 10k+ words of French without turning into French.

    And one of the reasons why the language has been so successful.

    Is there any connection between the above story, the success of the language, the brains capacity to learn and correlation with success of the english speaking peoples?

    Or is that more conflamottory than Roe v Wade?

    Just taking a thought for a walk….


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  5. Mike B says:

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  6. Marcus Kalka says:

    Very interesting. I wish my parents would have raised me in a bilingual/multilingual environment as a child. Learning new languages definitely opens up worlds.

    I’d just like to know what languages would be most economically valuable and efficient for an American child to learn in this time period. Mandarin? Spanish? Arabic? French?

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  7. Beirne says:

    Early bilingualism is a good thing but we did not lose our ability to learn new languages at 10 months.

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  8. Ellis Douek says:

    I understand that Japanese infants lose the ability to distinguish between l and r at the same time.

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