Will Your Baby Have a Hard Time Learning a Second Language?

Wondering how long before your baby will be able to habla español? The answer may lie in her eyes.

According to a new study, infants who make eye contact with you, then look at the same object you're looking at, may be able to pick up a second language more easily. That's because the more babies engage in this early social behavior, called "gaze shifting," the more valuable information they receive to help them make sense of language.

This echoes a previous study conducted by the same team of researchers, which found a link between gaze shifting and a preschooler's ability to pick up advanced language and social skills.

This small study, which was published online recently in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology, involved 17 babies, all around 10 months old and all from homes where English is the primary language spoken. For four weeks, the kiddos sat through a dozen 25-minute sessions, where they were read, talked to, and played with in Spanish. Researchers discovered that infants who engaged in gaze shifting during those tutoring sessions also showed a boost in activity in the part of the brain that oversees language learning.

"We found that the degree to which infants visually tracked the tutors and the toys they held was linked to brain measures of infant learning, showing that social behaviors give helpful information to babies in a complex natural language learning situation," said Patricia Kuhl, the study's co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.

So while it might seem like your baby is just sitting there as you talk to her, in reality her mind is making some amazing connections. "Our findings show that young babies' social engagement contributes to their own language learning; they're not just passive listeners of language," says study co-author Rechele Brooks, a research assistant professor at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. "They're paying attention, and showing parents they're ready to learn when they're looking back and forth. That's when the most learning happens."

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Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

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Image of baby courtesy of Shutterstock

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