New Research Illuminates How Bilingual Babies Learn Language
Science is shedding light on how babies acquire language, and how babies raised in single-language households differ from bilingual babies. The New York Times reports:
…Researchers found that at 6 months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were uttered in the language they were used to hearing or in another language not spoken in their homes. By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.
The researchers suggested that this represents a process of “neural commitment,” in which the infant brain wires itself to understand one language and its sounds.
In contrast, the bilingual infants followed a different developmental trajectory. At 6 to 9 months, they did not detect differences in phonetic sounds in either language, but when they were older — 10 to 12 months — they were able to discriminate sounds in both.
“What the study demonstrates is that the variability in bilingual babies’ experience keeps them open,” said Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the study. “They do not show the perceptual narrowing as soon as monolingual babies do. It’s another piece of evidence that what you experience shapes the brain.”
Other research in this growing field shows that babies prefer languages that are rhythmically similar to the languages they “heard” while they were still in the womb. Bilingual babies were also found to have “executive brain function”–higher vocabularies, logical problem-solving skills, and skilled multitasking–than babies who were raised in single-language families, the Times reported.