Study: bilingualism supercharges a baby’s brain
If you were raised in a bilingual household, the results of a 2017 study out of the University of Washington (UW) will likely come as no surprise to you. Similarly, if you grew up in a monolingual household and tried to learn a language as an adult, it’s a good bet that this will make a ton of sense to you as well.
The TL:DR version: Baby brains are incredible little microprocessors. Expose them to everything you can, the younger the better, and watch them blossom.
A team of research scientists at UW took a closer look at a young brain’s ability to pick up a second language. The main focus of the study is when a young brain doesn’t have the benefit of having two languages spoken at home. (1) Scientists and bilingual parents have long known the benefits of exposing young ones to two languages at once, but if that influence isn’t naturally present, would specialized tutoring do the job?
“How much and what kind of foreign language exposure is needed to ignite learning?” the study asks. (2)
Bilingualism – Rooted In Parentese
Researchers developed the program and then took their act on the road. They set up the experiment in Madrid, Spain, in four different public infant education centers. The 280 infants and children were tutored by 16 UW undergrads and recent grads, using the play-based program they’d developed. The socioeconomic backgrounds of the kids were varied. As you might expect, there was no difference in a child’s ability to learn relative to their status in life.
The 18-week program roots itself in real-life interactions. Social meetups and playing together make up a lot of the program. Quantity and quality of the interactions with the teachers play an important role as well. In their research, they saw the importance of using “infant-directed speech”, also known as “parentese”. Think of how parents speak to their young kids at home: simple words and grammar with exaggerated enunciation. This easy, plain speech is an integral part of the program.
Get ‘Em While They’re Young
To test the effectiveness of their method, the researchers split the children into two groups: the applied learning group, and the standard education group. In Spain, English is a standard part of the public school curriculum, so these were the “standard” learners. The applied learning group received the curated English lessons delivered by the UW researchers, tailored for them, utilizing social interaction as opposed to rote learning. Everyone wore special vests, rigged with recording equipment, to monitor their interactions in real-time.
Testing took place at the beginning and end of the 18-week program. The ones who received the curated lessons showed a rapid increase in their English speech and comprehension. In fact, they significantly outperformed the standard education group, across the board. At the end of 18 weeks, the kids in the UW program produced (hourly) an average of 74 English words or phrases per child, compared to the standard learners at 13 words or phrases. (1) Incredible!
“Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created, and that infants’ learning is time-sensitive. Their brains will never be better at learning a second language than they are between 0 and 3 years of age,” said the study’s co-author Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D.