If you’re lucky and smart enough to be able to speak two languages to your baby, it’s time to start. Not just for their ability to communicate with more of the world (which of course can only be a good thing) but specifically for accelerated cognitive development, as new research in the area has shown.
Babies who have been exposed to two languages instead of one during their first year of life may develop a significant cognitive advantage over their monolingual counterparts, attaining greater problem-solving skills. While typically, most babies don’t actually have a whole load of problems to solve, this early boost to their mental capacities may very well stand them in great stead for their adult lives.
Previous research in the area has shown that those who speak multiple languages tend to have enhanced connectivity in brain areas involving executive function, which refers to a selection of cognitive capabilities related to planning, reasoning and problem solving. However, researchers from the University of Washington were eager to establish if this positive neurological side-effect of multilingualism could be detected in babies who had not even started to talk.
To test out this theory, researchers recruited sixteen 11-month-old babies. 50% of these babies came from families that only speak English while the other 50% came from English-Spanish bilingual families. The researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure brain activity in these babies as they listened to a stream of unrelated speech sounds that are common to either English, Spanish or both.
Having reported their findings in the Developmental Science journal, the team observed that the babies from bilingual families showed strong brain responses to both the Spanish and English sounds, indicating their ability to recognize and process both types as “phonetic sounds” rather than general noises, or “acoustic sounds.” Babies selected from the English-speaking families group, were observed to only respond to English sounds, which suggests that the Spanish sounds they were exposed to, were not phonetically processed.
This was found to indicate that even before babies start talking, they are able to recognize linguistic sounds. Additionally, a significantly more important finding was that the neurological responses of bilingual babies, occurred in brain regions responsible for executive function, such as the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex. In contrast, the brain responses of monolingual babies did not occur in these regions.
Therefore, the researchers concluded the need to distinguish between two languages presented a cognitive challenge to bilingual babies which required them to engage these brain areas, thereby strengthening their executive function capacities in the process. According to study co-author Naja Ferjan Ramírez, these findings “suggests that bilingualism shapes not only language development, but also cognitive development more generally.”
In summary, babies exposed to multiple languages are likely to get a significant head start at strengthening the connections in the parts of the brain that are necessary for flexible thought and problem solving. So if you or your baby’s partner have the ability to speak a second language, make the effort and get chatting. It’s really good for them.