Babies born in bilingual homes are better at shifting their attention compared to babies born from homes that only speak one language, a new study finds.
The research led by Anglia Ruskin University said that bilinguals (people who speak two languages fluently) usually outperform monolinguals (people who speak only one language) when it comes to non-verbal tasks of cognitive control. In conflict resolution tasks, for instance, bilinguals have a “moderately significant bilingual advantage.” The authors also cited how bilinguals control their two language systems in terms of domain-general learning. This theory of development explains that people develop a global knowledge structure in the brain that contains whole and cohesive knowledge internalized from experience. Domain-general learning also recognizes that while learning various new information is processed in the same areas of the brain and the same manner, different domains likewise function interdependently.
For their study, the team tested babies who were between seven and nine months old to exclude “bilingual advantage” or the benefits gained from being already able to speak a second language. The focus of their study instead was on the effects of infants growing up hearing two or more languages in their homes.
Babies born in bilingual vs. monolingual homes: the experiment
They used eye-tracking technology to record the gaze of 102 babies who were carrying out various tasks. Dean D'Souza from ARU’s Faculty of Science and Engineering and colleagues showed two photos positioned side by side to the subjects. They found out that babies born in bilingual homes changed their focus quickly, looking from one picture to another. They also did this more frequently compared to infants born in monolingual homes.
The study, which appeared in the journal The Royal Society, further shows that babies from bilingual homes were 33% faster than those from monolingual homes in redirecting their attention when the experimenter tried to present a new photo on the screen.
D'Souza, who is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, said that bilingual environments may be unpredictable and more variable compared to monolingual environments. This makes it more challenging for babies to learn. The author added that multiple languages can be easily acquired by infants but how these infants can manage it remains unclear. This is why they came up with the study. Their study suggests that infants born in bilingual homes do adapt to the “more complex environment” and they do this by searching for additional information.
The team also shared via medical platform Medical Xpress that babies born in bilingual homes scanning their environment more frequently and faster may help them in several ways. For instance, they can redirect their attention from a toy to a speaker’s mouth so they can match the speech sounds with the mouth movements. The authors also pointed out that they are currently studying whether frequent and faster switching in babies’ attention has effects on their developmental time, such as their behavior as adults and older children.
University of Cambridge lecturer Teresa Parodi, who is not a part of the recent study, has previously shared that “we live in a world of great linguistic diversity.” Database company Statista shared the countries with the most spoken languages. At the top of their list is Papua New Guinea with 839 living languages spoken. It is followed by Indonesia (707 living languages spoken), Nigeria (526), India (454), United States (422), China (300), Mexico (289), Cameroon (281), Australia (245), and Brazil (229). There are also families where multilingualism or bilingualism is the norm because the parents speak different languages or are using a different language from that of their community. This is beneficial for the children born from such households because they can switch very fast from one language to the other, Parodi said.
A 2015 study by Northeastern developmental psychologist David J. Lewkowicz also found that bilingual infants lip-read more than monolingual infants.
Bilingual kids in America
Kids Count, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation that helps track the well-being of children in the US, also shares that 22% (slightly more than 12 million) of kids in the US spoke a language other than English at home in 2016. This rate has increased by 2% or 1.2 million kids compared to the data in the last 10 years. The largest jump happened in the District of Columbia (19% increase), Maryland (19%), and New Jersey (30%). Aside from English, kids in the US also speak Spanish at home.
In the same year, 3% (2.5 million) of American kids were foreign-born. This classification includes those who are US citizens by naturalization and not citizens of the US. According to separate data by vocabulary platform Language Learning, 40% of the world population are monolinguals, 43% are bilinguals, 13% are multilingual, and less than 1% are polyglot or people who can speak 5 languages fluently.
Monolinguals are common in English speaking countries, such as the US, UK, New Zealand, and Australia based on the belief that learning a second language is of little importance or relevance to their society. Their perception is that the majority of the world already speaks English as their second or first language, too.
Bilinguals are more noticeable in the US' Hispanic community, which speaks English and Spanish. It is also common in French-speaking nations in Africa that speak French and their native language. Immigrants who migrate from English speaking nations also acquire their second language later in life.
Perks of being bilingual
Knowing how to speak and understand more than one language is an important skill in the workforce and usually commands a higher salary. Speaking a foreign language increases the salary of an individual by at least 1.5 to 3.8%. The US Census Bureau forecasts that the United States will have 138 million Spanish speakers by 2050. Employment of translators and interpreters is projected to grow 46% from 2012 to 2022 and 66% of North American recruiters agreed that being bilingual will be increasingly significant in the next 10 years.
Being bilingual is awesome. Staying focused is likewise proven to be stronger in individuals and speaking two languages stretches their minds intellectually because they have to make inferences, recognize sound patterns, and focus on the structure of the sentence at the same time.