Bilingual babies get early brain boost

Babies in bilingual households benefit from early exposure to two languages.

6th April 2016
Bilingual babies get early brain boost © iStock

Babies who grow up in bilingual households have more developed brains than their monolingual peers. That’s the finding of a new study at the University of Washington.

At the age of only 11 months, before the babies had even begun to talk, their brains showed marked differences in ‘executive function’, a set of abilities linked to problem solving, switching focus, and other desirable traits.

The experiment involved 16 11-month-old babies – half from English-only households and half from Spanish-English households. The babies listened to a stream of speech sounds, some of which exist in both languages, others only in one language. A magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanner measured which nerve cells in the brains were active while the babies listened.

The babies from bilingual households were found to have stronger responses to speech sounds in their prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex – two brain regions associated with executive function. These differences have previously been found in brain studies with bilingual and monolingual adults.

"Babies raised listening to two languages seem to stay 'open' to the sounds of novel languages longer than their monolingual peers, which is a good and highly adaptive thing for their brains to do," says Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study.

"[But] monolingual babies show a narrowing in their perception of sounds at about 11 months of age – they no longer discriminate foreign-language sounds they successfully discriminated at 6 months of age."

It’s further proof that early childhood is the best time to start learning languages. But, of course, it’s never too late…