If you dream of your child growing up bilingual, it’s essential that you start from day one or, even better, before your baby is welcomed into the world.
Did you know that the foetus is exposed to the rhythms and sounds of language before birth? In this article from The New York Times we discover that newborns have been shown to prefer languages rhythmically similar to the one perceived during foetal development.
Scientists are carrying out research to compare the earliest differences between brains exposed to one language only and brains exposed to two. Read on to find out more.
“Once, experts feared that young children exposed to more than one language would suffer “language confusion,” which might delay their speech development. Today, parents often are urged to capitalize on that early knack for acquiring language. […] Yet while the study of bilingual development has refuted those early fears about confusion and delay, there aren’t many research-based guidelines about the very early years and the best strategies for producing a happily bilingual child. But there is more and more research to draw on, reaching back to infancy and even to the womb. […] Now, analyzing the neurologic activity of babies’ brains as they hear language, and then comparing those early responses with the words that those children learn as they get older, is helping explain not just how the early brain listens to language, but how listening shapes the early brain.
The learning of language — and the effects on the brain of the language we hear — may begin even earlier than 6 months of age.
Janet Werker, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, studies how babies perceive language and how that shapes their learning. Even in the womb, she said, babies are exposed to the rhythms and sounds of language, and newborns have been shown to prefer languages rhythmically similar to the one they’ve heard during fetal development.
In one recent study, Dr. Werker and her collaborators showed that babies born to bilingual mothers not only prefer both of those languages over others — but are also able to register that the two languages are different.
In addition to this ability to use rhythmic sound to discriminate between languages, Dr. Werker has studied other strategies that infants use as they grow, showing how their brains use different kinds of perception to learn languages, and also to keep them separate. […]
Over the past decade, Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, has shown that bilingual children develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking, skills that are often considered part of the brain’s so-called executive function.
These higher-level cognitive abilities are localized to the frontal and prefrontal cortex in the brain. “Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function,” Dr. Bialystok said.
Adapted by Louise McNeela