Growing up in a bilingual home can yield unexpected cognitive benefits later in life, especially if you’re exposed to two or more languages from birth.
British experts found that adults exposed to two languages earlier in life were the top performers on cognitive tests.
‘Early bilinguals’ – those who learn a second language as an infant or young child – have cognitive advantages over those who later learn a second language, suggesting that the sooner we are exposed to two languages, the better for our brains.
In the experiments, early bilinguals were found to be faster at shifting attention and detecting visual changes compared to adults who learned their second language later in life (late bilinguals).
Both early and late bilinguals outperformed those who spent their early lives in monolingual families.
The findings suggest that parents with different mother tongues can give their children a tremendous advantage by speaking to them in their own language from a very early age.
‘Early bilinguals’ – those who start hearing two languages regularly instead of just one – have advantages over those who learn a second language later
“This study is an exciting extension of our previous research, which suggested that babies raised in bilingual families adapt to their more complex language environments by changing attention more quickly and more frequently,” said study author Dr. Dean D’Souza from Anglia Ruskin University.
This adaptation can help them take advantage of multiple sources of visual information, such as mouth movements, facial expressions, and subtle gestures, ultimately enabling them to learn multiple languages.
“The findings of our new study in bilingual adults suggest that some of these adaptations, including more rapid shifting of attention, are sustained into adulthood.”
The study involved 127 adults, 92 of whom were bilingual and 35 monolingual, who took part in two separate experiments.
In comparison, the bilingual adults were early or late bilinguals.
In general, the cut-off point varies when classifying from sooner or later bilingual.
“Cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists like me see effects as early as the first 12 months of life,” Dr. D’Souza told MailOnline.
‘Researchers in other disciplines see differences later, from adolescence.’
Because researchers were interested in early versus late bilinguals, the 92 bilingual adults were measured using a self-report questionnaire, the Language Experience and Proficiency Questionnaire (LEAP-Q).
This measures the ‘age of acquisition’ for each language that the individual understands.
Each achieved a score for ‘bilingual experience’ by subtracting ‘age of first language acquisition’ from ‘age of second language acquisition’.
Indeed, young bilingual adults can draw attention more quickly than late bilingual adults. This increases the possibility that an adaptation found in infants exposed to bilingual families will extend into adulthood and not be found in late bilinguals
‘Our rationale was that zero would indicate simultaneous bilingualism (someone who acquired their first and second language early and in parallel),’ say the researchers in their paper, published in the journal Scientific reports.
“A small number would indicate early bilingualism (someone who acquired their second language shortly after their first), and a large number would indicate late bilingualism (someone who acquired their second language later in life).”
The first experiment measured the ability to disconnect attention from one visual stimulus and shift it to another visual stimulus.
It involved viewing images on a screen, with one image gradually changing and the other remaining the same.
According to the study authors, early bilinguals noticed these changes much more quickly than late bilinguals.
In the second experiment, participants were required to inspect two visual stimuli, then, and after a one-second pause, inspect two more visual stimuli as the representations of the initial stimuli faded.
Parents who are native speakers of different languages should speak to their babies in their native language to aid their development, studies suggest
The team found that early bilinguals were better at controlling their attention – specifically, they were faster at detaching attention from one photo to shift their focus to another.
Unfortunately, neither the bilingual babies nor the monolingual babies seemed to detect the changes in this ‘challenging’ second experiment.
Overall, the team suggests that children raised in more complex language environments ‘minimize uncertainty’ by actively seeking out multiple sources of information, such as a mouth movement, a facial expression, or a subtle gesture.
“They should simultaneously construct – and inspect – different visual stimuli to discern their meaning and align the visual information with the auditory information,” they say in their paper.
Perhaps this is a skill that monolinguals and late bilinguals never have to develop to the same degree as early bilinguals.
“It’s something we want to explore in future research.”
Although bilingual benefits developed in childhood appear to last into adulthood, they “may play a small role in the daily activities of adulthood,” said Dr. D’Souza.
Last year, he and his colleagues found that babies raised in bilingual families adapt to their more varied and unpredictable language environment by shifting their visual attention faster and more often.
Last year’s study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, used eye-tracking technology to capture the gaze of 102 babies between seven and nine months.
Exactly half (51) of them grew up in bilingual homes and half in monolingual homes.
Babies from bilingual families were 33 percent faster at shifting their attention to a new photo when it appeared on the screen.
When two photos were shown side-by-side, these babies were found to shift attention from one photo to another more often than monolingual babies.
The results of this 2020 study suggested that bilingual babies were “ exploring more of their environment. ”
Dr. D’Souza said at the time, ‘Scanning their environment faster and more frequently can help the babies in a number of ways.
“For example, redirecting attention from a toy to a speaker’s mouth can help babies match ambiguous speech sounds with mouth movements.”
Talking to babies in a high-pitched and exaggerated voice can help them develop language skills
‘Parentesis’ is not the same as baby talk, which is usually ungrammatical and contains made-up nonsense words
Parents may feel self-aware, but talking to a baby in a silly voice can really help them learn.
A study of 71 families looked at ‘parentese’ – the slow, high-pitched, happy-sounding voice in which many parents talk to their babies.
Parentesis is not the same as baby talk, which is usually ungrammatical and contains made-up nonsense words.
It uses precise words and grammar, but with a voice nearly an octave higher, with exaggerated facial expressions and long vowels that make the phonetic sounds of letters easier to understand.
Researchers found that children who were addressed in this way knew most of the better words, such as “banana” and “dog” when they were 18 months old.
Experts thought that this way of speaking made them worse at learning language.
But recent evidence shows that speaking slowly and cheerfully to a child catches their attention, potentially causing them to interact more with their parents and try to imitate their speech.
The key to making it really work seems to be paying attention to a child and responding to what they are watching or trying to say.
Researchers recruited six-month-old babies and their parents, randomly assigned 47 of them to receive coaching on the importance of parentesis.
Those who learned parentese, and used it more often, said that their children knew a little over 99 words on average when they were 18 months old.
When parents who did not receive coaching – those who used less parenting – were asked to rate how many words their 18-month-old knew from a list of about 600, they said the child only knew 64 on average.
Professor Patricia Kuhl, senior author of the study from the University of Washington in Seattle, said: “We believe that parentese makes language learning easier because of its simpler language structure and exaggerated sounds.
But this new work suggests a more fundamental reason.
“We now think parentesis works because it is a social hook for the baby brain – the high pitched and slower pace are socially engaging and invite the baby to respond.”
Study link: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences