Parents Perspective

The Benefits of Raising Bilingual Babies

Group of multiethnic babies sirtravelalot/Shutterstock
An interesting study has determined that babies who grow up in diverse neighborhoods are more likely to be open-minded and to interact with people of different cultures and races. (No real surprise there, right?) Plus, not only can raising babies in multicultural areas likely help them develop tolerance, compassion, and empathy for others, but babies are also exposed to other languages -- a bonus because they have the opportunity to learn a foreign language.

And studies through the years have pointed out the benefit of raising bilingual babies. Bilingual babies are better creative thinkers and they have sharper brain functions -- in fact, learning a foreign language helps babies improve verbal and problem-solving skills, which come in handy when they begin taking tests in school. A more recent study on bilingual babies further supports this fact, by showing that babies who learn a different language around 6 months seem to learn and process information faster.

Researchers at the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences studied 114 babies around 6-months old; each baby was repeatedly shown the same image to gauge their response to it. The babies growing up in bilingual households or surroundings got bored more quickly when shown the same image repeatedly, and they were likely to move on to a new image. This indicated that babies who are still learning to distinguish two vocabularies and languages have increased cognitive development to process differences (like images) faster. Although the research focused on a small sample size in a specific geographical region, the study confirmed an advantage of learning more than one language.

Growing up, I was immersed in a bilingual environment -- I spoke English at school and Mandarin at home, alternating between the two languages seamlessly or substituting Chinese vocabulary I didn't know with English words. Although my neighborhood wasn't multicultural, being exposed to two languages certainly helped me see the value of learning a foreign language -- if only to expand communication and improve translation skills, understand the nuances of different verbal expression, and open up ways to understand others of different backgrounds.

Within the past few years, as more and more parents realize the advantages of preparing baby for an increasingly global world, they have started to enroll their kids in foreign language classes -- starting as early as preschool! -- with the hope that having them learn Chinese or learn Spanish will give them an edge and a better sense of the world later in life. But making sure kids are practicing and speaking a different language on a daily basis is just as important, so they can speak the language better and remember vocabulary. From middle school to high school, I also took French classes, but it was difficult to become fluent because I didn't speak it daily outside of school. And by the time I got to college to learn how to read and write Chinese, those lessons really didn't stick with me beyond the classroom. So there's no doubt that the younger the kids are, the more likely they'll have an easier time retaining another language (or two!) faster -- which is just another positive reason why parents should consider raising babies in environments with cultural and linguistic diversity.

Imagine this: if every child has the opportunity to learn a foreign language, just imagine a future where everyone understands each other just a little better!

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Image: Group of multiethnic babies via Shutterstock