Bilingual baby talk

bilingual baby talk

Researchers at the University of British Columbia delved into how babies learn two languages simultaneously. They found out not only is there no disadvantage to learning two languages at the same time, these babies are actually able to decipher differences between the two as early as 7 months.

Could our babies’ brains be better than ours?

Learning a second language is a feat at any age, but apparently babies are better suited for the challenge than adults. If you are thinking of raising a bilingual family, your children will not only benefit from learning two languages simultaneously, but they will actually excel at it.

Learning language

Acquisition of language is one of the most incredible parts of childhood development. Babies begin experimenting with language by babbling, and wind up speaking in sentences before they are out of diapers. Language learning begins in infancy, well before children even utter their first word. The words and sounds your baby hears all around him are forming the basic foundation for verbal communication. By singing, mimicking your baby’s sounds and talking to your baby, you are truly his first teacher.

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So wouldn’t it be harder for babies to process two separate languages spoken at home? For babies born into bilingual households, parents may wonder how they are able to make distinctions between the two languages. You may think it may be too confusing to raise bilingual children, but a recent study shows that babies as young as 7 months are able to decipher differences between two different languages.

What researchers did

Dr. Janet Werker is the director of the Infant Studies Center at the University of British Columbia, and co-author of a study published in the journal Nature Communications. She and her colleagues studied 7-month-old bilingual babies to learn how they are able to differentiate between two separate languages at such an early age.

Researchers created a made-up language of 11 words with content patterns similar to an actual language. Babies sat on their mothers' laps while listening to these made-up words in a constant stream. Half of the babies listened to words with differences in duration, while the others heard words with differences in pitch. Each of the two fictional languages was broadcast from a different part of the room. Researchers took note of how long each infant spent looking toward the source of the sounds. The bilingual babies looked longer at the source of sounds that matched their expectation of word order. A longer gaze was thought to indicate that the baby was picking up on differences in word frequency and differentiating between the two fictional languages.


The study showed that bilingual babies are able to determine differences in pitch and duration of sounds in order to keep two languages separate. Amazingly, they are able to pick up on these sometimes subtle differences at 7 months of age.

"Even though it might look like a more complex task to learn two languages at once, babies do so quite easily."

"There are a lot of cues just at the surface level in language that babies can use to get a leg up," says Dr. Werker.

Learning two languages is tricky for the brain, especially when the word patterns and order are opposite. The findings help counter the common misconception that bilingual infants will have a distinct disadvantage in language development. "Even though it might look like a more complex task to learn two languages at once," Werker says, "babies do so quite easily." While these early second language learners do not necessarily have a higher level of intelligence later in life, the benefits of being bilingual are huge — especially in a community where the second language is often spoken.

Raising bilingual kids

Thinking of raising bilingual kids? Mother of two Kelly Tirman is making it work, with a little help from the community. "Growing up I always felt left out not being fluent in Spanish," she remembers. "I knew that if I ever had kids I wanted to ensure they had the gift of bilingualism. Beyond my love for them, it has always felt like one of the best things I could ensure they had."

The difficult thing is that neither parent is fluent in Spanish. "When I decided to raise my children to be bilingual I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to find a way to ensure they were given this gift." With a little hard work Tirman found a wonderful Spanish-speaking nanny and a great community with a Spanish-immersion preschool. "When you surround yourself with others that share the same goals, even non-native speakers can raise bilingual kids," adds Tirman.

Tell us

What do you think? Could raising your child to be bilingual work for your family?

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Comments on "Bilingual babies are smarter than you"

Becky June 02, 2013 | 10:27 PM

Our son is almost 2, and we are not bilingual, but a trilingual family, ... I am from Colombia, my husband from France and we live in the US, so I talk to him in Spanish, daddy in French and we use English when talking in between us. Our little one is actually understanding both of us, and the funny part of this, he's answering us back in English, and even using words in Spanish and French too.  So yes, babies can learn more than 2 languages and we are sooo glad we decided that each one will use native languages. 

Jackie Favrin May 30, 2013 | 6:47 PM

I have 3 children, two boys 9 and 8 years old and a 4 year old daughter. I'm from Mexico city and have been here in the US married to a Canadian American for 13 years. All my children are fully bilingual and they have no trouble with switching from English to Spanish. I talk in Spanish all the time and my hubby English a the little Spanish he has managed to learn. My children are really bright and excel in school. I also have been teaching my native language to little ones and I'm amazed how amazingly fast they learn! The younger you start a language the better and it actually makes children speak with no accent.

Maureen Wallace May 27, 2013 | 11:43 AM

Sherri, what an awesome article... we have family friends who speak Spanish to our kids and our son recently shouted out, "Hola!" before he's even officially saying, "Hi!" Love it!

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