Bilingual Baby: Second Language Boosts Cognitive Skills

bilingual baby
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Many families are choosing to raise their children to know how to speak two languages, whether that be for cultural reasons, educational purposes, or to enrich their life experience. And while having two languages under your belt might be a wonderful skill to have in general, one study has shown that it also has a major benefit for babies' brains especially.

Benefits of Being Bilingual

Previous studies have confirmed that there are benefits to being bilingual, such as that it boosts cognitive ability, especially problem solving.

Knowing two languages also has economic, social, and communicative benefits. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association lists several important advantages of being bilingual that are especially helpful for babies such as:

  • The ability to pick up new words quickly
  • Skill with rhyming words
  • Teaching how to break down words by their sounds as they learn to speak and read
  • Boosting the ability to learn new information
  • Category-grouping
  • Problem solving
  • Improved listening skills
  • Empathy and connectedness to others who speak the same language

Currently, about 12 percent of people over the age of 5 are bilingual, but experts predict that the number of individuals who speak two languages will only to continue to grow. So it only makes sense that parents may want to consider teaching their baby a second language very early on, because studies have shown that learning a second language is much easier at an earlier age.

It's easier for a baby to learn two languages at once than it is for an adult to try to learn a second language later on in life.

Can You Teach Your Baby to Be Bilingual?

While many parents and experts recognize the benefits of having their children learn two languages (or more!), actually teaching children to learn two languages can be a little challenging.

Babies that grow up in households where two languages are spoken by their parents or caregivers tend to learn a second language very easily and naturally. But babies who don't have the advantage of bilingual parents or caregivers can still get the benefits from learning two languages.

To try to determine exactly how much exposure to a second language a baby actually needs to learn the language, experts in Madrid, Spain conducted a study on children who ranged in age from 7 months to 33.5 months old to see how teaching them English affected their language development. The experts studied children at four public infant education centers in Madrid, where the babies were given daily hour-long group English sessions from tutors who spoke English as a first language. The sessions ran over a period of 18 weeks total.

The study found that children in the group sessions did better than other methods of teaching English and the infants retained the new words and comprehension of the English language longer than their peers as well, even as long as 18 weeks after the study was completed.

How Babies Learn To Be Bilingual

Studies show that the earlier you can introduce your baby to a second language, the greater their chance of being bilingual is.

One study found that even by 12 months, babies' perception of how to hear words narrows down to their first language. Babies are born with the ability to hear sounds from all types of languages, but as they near their first birthday their focus narrows down so they start to only "hear" the sounds of their primary language.

The key to learning a second language during your child's baby years is that their brain's networks and pathways haven't fully formed yet, so their brain is able to set up the "network" for both languages at once while they are babies, something that adult brains just can't do.

Thus, it's important to expose your baby as early as possible to both languages that you want him or her to learn, especially before his or her first birthday. If you've missed that deadline, however, don't worry. Children who are exposed to two languages before the age of 5 also reap some major benefits in their brain development.

Teaching Children to Be Bilingual

So we know that being bilingual is great and that it's best if babies can pick up on a second language from birth, but how exactly do you teach a child to be bilingual?

Researchers have found that a baby learns to be bilingual through both the quantity and quality of the second language being spoke around them. Babies learn best in person-to-person setting as opposed to a video or streaming service that teaches a second language. And as the study demonstrated, babies 9 months and under do especially well in play-based language sessions with a live tutor just as well as they would by learning the language in a natural environment at home.

How much exposure in a group session would your child need? Previous studies have found that 12 sessions over 5 weeks—a total of only 6 hours of foreign language exposure—was all babies needed to start setting those brain development pathways down to learn a second language. (Yes, babies' brains are amazing.) There seems to be a major link between a social setting and the language, so babies love to learn in a social or playful environment.

The tutors in this study also used infant-directed speech, that infamous "parentese" that parents and caregivers naturally use when talked to babies that has simple grammar, a higher voice, and long-drawn out vowels. This natural way of speaking to babies actually helps their brains learn language better. Babies' brains tend to focus on sounds at first, so the higher pitch and exaggerated, slower sounds makes it easier for them to learn those sounds first, which are then translated into words.

For older infants, aged 7 months and up to 33.5, the Madrid study found that 1 hour daily play sessions in a social environment with English tutors for 18 weeks led to "highly significant gains in foreign language comprehension and production." Perhaps most importantly, the researchers re-tested the babies 18 weeks after they completed the tutoring sessions and after they had had no other exposure to English and found that their brains were still able to retain the knowledge, new words, and sounds that they had learned. This showed that early exposure in a play-based setting with a tutor helped boost the brain's ability to retain language too.

In short, all it took was one hour a day of a baby playing with someone else who spoke a different language to learn.

A Word From Verywell

Teaching your baby a second language can benefit him or her in many ways. Not only will you set your baby up for success later in life with the skill of having a second language, something that is very desirable in a global economy and can set a job candidate apart, but being bilingual changes the way your baby's brain develops too.

If you can, it is best to expose your baby to two languages as early as possible in infancy, as babies' brains start focusing on one type of language by the age of one. However, children's brains are still able to learn and retain language better by the age of five. All children will benefit from increased brain development if they are exposed to two languages, so don't be afraid to encourage your child to learn a second language no matter what age they are. Babies learn best through play, and a group session or tutor session with a real person is the most effective way to teach your baby to learn a second language if you don't speak a second language yourself.

Sources:

Ferjan Ramirez, N. and Kuhl, P. (2017), Bilingual Baby: Foreign Language Intervention in Madrid's Infant Education Centers. Mind, Brain, and Education, 11: 133–143. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mbe.12144/full

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2017). The advantages of being bilingual. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/The-Advantages-of-Being-Bilingual/

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