Bilingual Babies

Here's a fascinating new study demonstrating that it's good to get exposed to multiple languages even as a preverbal infant:

Children exposed to bilingual input typically learn 2 languages without obvious difficulties. However, it is unclear how preverbal infants cope with the inconsistent input and how bilingualism affects early development. In 3 eye-tracking studies we show that 7-month-old infants, raised with 2 languages from birth, display improved cognitive control abilities compared with matched monolinguals. Whereas both monolinguals and bilinguals learned to respond to a speech or visual cue to anticipate a reward on one side of a screen, only bilinguals succeeded in redirecting their anticipatory looks when the cue began signaling the reward on the opposite side. Bilingual infants rapidly suppressed their looks to the first location and learned the new response. These findings show that processing representations from 2 languages leads to a domain-general enhancement of the cognitive control system well before the onset of speech.

The secret isn't language per se - it's the inconsistency of the input, which seems to give the baby an additional form of cognitive exercise.

Update: Ed Yong has a typically fantastic description of the experiment.

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it would be further interesting to find out how Interpreter's are able to
process all sorts of technical information not only in a consecutive manner but also in a simultaneous manner without making mistakes. Plus, how does the mind track simultaneous conversation in two languages with a 3 second delay in start time and accuracy of 98% ?

By Sally Head (not verified) on 27 Apr 2009 #permalink

I posted this on your other blog too -

Are you suggesting/do you think that grown-ups with ADD - that is with an inability to concentrate - might be better at learning languages than those who have normal powers of concentration?

I've always wanted to learn another language but get discouraged that I won't be able to focuse on remembering all those new words.

By james heady (not verified) on 27 Apr 2009 #permalink

"The secret isn't language per se - it's the inconsistency of the input, which seems to give the baby an additional form of cognitive exercise." I'm not sure we can conclude that from the experiment. Both versions of puppet-appearances were consistent in their own right. Bilingual babies detected the switch effectively and fluently adapted to the switch.This corresponds with the exposure to bilingualism. The languages they are being exposed to are consistent in their own right, and the babies get practiced in detecting and responding to the switch.

The period of language acquisition starting at birth and continuing until age 7 is the most important time for a child mentally. Deaf children, especially if born deaf, must acquire some sort of language(speech or sign) during this time or at least by puberty or they become poor communicators and may even have retarded intelligence, regardless of how much effort is exerted after this period. We know this because not so long ago there was a time when acquiring speech was stressed over acquiring sign and this is very difficult for someone born deaf. We know the result of this misguided effort from studies of survivors of this period of deaf education. Read Oliver Sacks' "Seeing Voices".

From David Snowdon's study of nuns and Alzheimer's we learn that even among the hearing there were nuns whose acquisition of language was better than others; this showed up in the essays that young nuns wrote in order to be admitted to the Order and was traced back to early childhood. A linguistic study of richness of the language used in the essays turned out to be predictor of who would get Alzheimer's and who would not: the richer and more eloquent the young writer the less likely they were to develope Alzheimer's in old age.

My sister recently worked at a faculty childcare facility at a university where the young children in attendance and their parents were taught sign to communicate. This was before the two word stage that happens around two years of age when children can utter two word sentences like "Want cookie" and thus convey their needs. Pre age two, children can use sign language to speak and think (in pictures rather than words) presumably! There is even a website devoted to this: www.babies-and-sign-language.com.
Congratulations Jonah on becoming an uncle.

I wonder if this passive alertness (my term) also translates to facility in speaking two languages later on. Isn't it exhilarating how each new birth strikes one in so refreshingly unique a manner? Congratulations to you and the parents.

Children have georgous ability to 'absorbe' knowledge just as sponge does water. That's why for bilingual it's not a problem to follow conversation in two languages without lack in understanding. There can be a problem in speaking (till the age of 2) as they may mix languages - both grammar and vocab.
On the other side we have children who are deaf. It is really upseting as this disability is much worse than eg. blindness. It handicap mental development in general, not only the ability to speak. Deaf children's brains are not developing in usual way (hearing and speech centres), what can result in weak understanding of abstraction etc.
Fortunately there are examples of deaf people overcame their disabilities (brains' power is really amazing), but it requires a lot of work - both the person and their environment.

This is great to know - I have often wondered how they cope with two languages, they seem to transition better than adults do. I wonder if this same principal applied when the language isn't spoken - for instance when you are using baby sign language with your baby as well as a spoken language. Aparently gesture based languages and spoken languages are processed by the same part of the brain so perhaps...I would love to hear your thoughts.