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29th Mar 2022

The sooner you expose a baby to a second language, the smarter they will be

Trine Jensen-Burke

Time to brush up on the ‘aul French from school?

Or your Leaving Cert Irish?

Turns out, children who are exposed to a second language from birth (or at least from very early on in their lives) grow up smarter than those from a household where only one language is spoken.

According to a new study by the University of Washington, researchers wanted to shine some light on the belief that bilingual people are smarter, and tested 16 babies from either English-only households or English and Spanish-speaking households.

During the study, they exposed the babies to a large variety of sounds from both the English and Spanish languages and monitored their responses with magnetoencephalography (MEG).

Higher brain activity

And what they found, was that not only did the babies from bilingual households react more actively to both languages, but they also exhibited higher activities in their prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex – both areas of the brain responsible for our problem-solving and decision-making abilities.

Yes, this study included a fairly small sample size, but to be fair – many other studies on the same subject has yielded similar results. In fact, pretty much all studies done in this matter shows conclusively that bilingual and multilingual adults have better recalling memories, problem-solving skills, attention-switching speed, and planning skills.

And – these skills are noticeable at any stage of a person’s development, from infanthood, through school, and into adulthood.

In fact, what an overwhelming amount of research shows, is that there are pretty much zero downsides to exposing children to more than one language from birth.

“Our results suggest that before they even start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practise at tasks related to executive function,” explains lead author of the study, Naja Ferjan Ramirez.

She adds:

“Our results underscore the notion that not only are very young children capable of learning multiple languages, but that early childhood is the optimum time for them to begin.”

Patricia Kuhl, who co-authored the University of Washington study, also added:

“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.”