A study showed that infants from bilingual homes were paying attention to new knowledge more quickly than other children.
The jury is still out on the long-lasting domestic impact of studying two languages.
Meanwhile some of the supposed benefits of bilingualism in preverbal children have been identified by researchers.
They concluded, based on the results of their new study, that living in a bilingual home helps children grow greater versatility in learning new information, even before they learn to talk at all.
The research, which was published by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge, UK, appears in the Royal Society Open Science journal.
The theory under study is whether a child is motivated by the more nuanced linguistic environment in a bilingual home to develop the ability to turn their focus between different stimuli more quickly.
The lead author of the study is Dean D’Souza, who is a senior psychology lecturer at ARU. Colleagues and D’Souza write:
We propose that exposure to more varied, less predictable (language) environments drive infants to sample more by placing less weight on consolidating familiar information in order to orient sooner to (and explore) new stimuli.”
Dean D’Souza says, “We know babies can quickly learn multiple languages, so we wanted to investigate how they do it.”
“Our research suggests that babies in bilingual homes respond to their more complex environment by seeking additional knowledge.”
The researchers analyzed eye tracking data from 102 infants between the ages of 7 and 9 months.
Half the babies were from bilingual families. The researchers found a bilingual home if the child was exposed to two or more languages daily and heard no more than 75 percent of the time in their first language. The remaining 51 babies acted as a control group.
The researchers showed each infant a series of pictures and observed their target of attention using a Tobii Pro TX300 remote eye tracker and a camera.
The scientists carried out four experiments with each child:
- Switch task: This task tracks the viewer’s tendency to anticipate the arrival of new images after viewing a repeating pattern of different images.
- Visual memory task: This task ascertains whether a participant notices minute differences between two images and changes focus as a result.
- Representations task: This task is essentially the opposite, in that it assesses how the participant responds to less detailed differences.
- Gap overlap task: This measures a person’s ability to let go of one stimulus and quickly move their attention to another.
What the researchers found
The results of the image tests showed that infants from bilingual homes switched attention more often than those in the control group, indicating that they had become more experienced at managing constantly shifting stimuli in their home environment.
The analysis also showed that these children were substantially better at letting go of one picture and concentrating on a new one than the control group.
“Is pure access to ambient bilinguals enough? We believe it is,’ the writers of the study conclude. Not only that, they say, but also “because the babies have not yet started speaking, it informs us that simple exposure to a second language is enough to detect a difference.”
As to exactly why this occurs, D’Souza says, “Bilingual environments can be more complex and volatile than monolingual environments— and therefore more difficult to learn in.”
He adds: “Scanning their surroundings faster and more often could benefit the infants in a number of ways. For example, redirecting focus from a toy to the mouth of a speaker may help infants align ambiguous speech sounds with mouth movements.”
Therefore, the authors interpret the skills of the participants as an adaptive response to a particular situation, rather than as part of the overall advantage that bilingualism has provided them.
Next up for the researchers
Looking ahead, the researchers are interested in investigating whether the attention-switching skills they found in early life affect the development of the children over time.
Several research have also suggested that growing bilingual in older adults may delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.