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