Did you know that babies who learn a second language can actually gain a cognitive advantage? According to a study from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, there are great benefits for bilingual babies, and it’s never too early to expose kids to two languages.
In the study, a research scientist at the University of Washington, Naja Ferjan Ramirez, PhD, measured brain waves from eleven-month-olds and found they’re already learning the language or languages that they’ve been hearing. “At the time that they’re getting ready to say their first words, they’re already primed to do that,” explained Ferjan Ramirez. “At 11 months of age we can already see brain evidence of having listened to either one or two languages from their parents.”
Not only is the infant brain capable of learning two languages simultaneously, but bilingual babies also showed strong responses in the study to both languages, and had stronger brain responses in areas that are responsible for executive function. Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior; when paired with self-regulation skills, executive function enables us to plan, focus, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks.
Researchers at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences say a child who hears only one language will lose the ability to distinguish between sounds that don’t occur in English, while a bilingual child will continue to be able to differentiate those sounds.
“If we give babies an opportunity to experience a second language during infancy and early childhood, they will be able to, and should be able to develop native-like fluency,” Ferjan Ramirez said.
Developmentally, our brains are most primed for language acquisition in early infancy (from zero to five). According to Ferjan Ramirez, what they learn and when they learn it is less important than the quality of the language they’re acquiring. “They need to have opportunities to interact and actively engage in that language that they’re trying to learn,” she said.
Perhaps the best opportunity to learn a second language with native fluency is in the home. In the U.S. there are a number of families with parents who are native speakers of languages other than English, yet Ferjan Ramirez said that these parents are often apprehensive about speaking their native language, as opposed to just interacting in English.
“Our findings definitely support the view that the infant brain is capable of learning two languages at the same time,” she said. “We encourage all parents to speak at home with their baby in the language in which they feel most comfortable and natural because it’s these natural social interactions that are best for language learning and lead to best outcomes.”
Currently, Ferjan Ramirez and her team are designing a research-based method and curriculum for teaching babies a second language within early education centers in Madrid, Spain, with the ultimate goal of making the curriculum available in the United States and worldwide.
Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer;
Milvionne Chery, Field Producer and Roque Correa, Editor.
Produced by Child Trends News Service in partnership with Ivanhoe Broadcast News and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.