Babies in bilingual home show early development of attention

February 06, 2019
Child brain

IN most modern households, family members often speak more than one language, Tagalog and English (and sometimes Chinese) are the common languages currently spoken by many.

According to a new study, babies as early as six months benefit a lot when they are exposed to more than one language.

A study conducted at York University showed the advantages of growing up in a bilingual home and infants who are exposed to more than one language show better attentional control than infants who are exposed to only one language. This means that exposure to bilingual environments should be considered a significant factor in the early development of attention in infancy and could set the stage for lifelong cognitive benefits.

The researchers conducted two separate studies in which infants’ eye movements were measured to assess attention and learning. Half of the infants who were studied were being raised in monolingual environments while others were being raised in environments in which they heard two languages spoken approximately half of the time each. The infants were shown images as they lay in a crib equipped with a camera and screen, and their eye movements were tracked and recorded as they watched pictures appear above them, in different areas of the screen. The tracking was conducted 60 times for each infant.

In the first study, the infants saw one of two images in the centre of the screen followed by another image appearing on either the left or right side of the screen. The babies learned to expect that if, for example, a pink and white image appears in the center of the screen, it would be followed by an attractive target image on the left; if a blue and yellow image appeared in the center, then the target would appear on the right. All the infants could learn these rules.

In the second study, which began in the same way, researchers switched the rule halfway through the experiment. When they tracked the babies’ eye movements, they found that infants who were exposed to a bilingual environment were better at learning the new rule and at anticipating where the target image would appear. This is difficult because they needed to learn a new association and replace a successful response with a new contrasting one.

Anything that comes through the brain’s processing system interacts with this attentional mechanism, that is, language as well as visual information can influence the development of the attentional system.

Researchers said the experience of attending to a complex environment in which infants simultaneously process and contrast two languages may account for why infants raised in bilingual environments have greater attentional control than those raised in monolingual environments.

In previous research, bilingual children and adults outperformed monolinguals on some cognitive tasks that require them to switch responses or deal with conflict. The reasons for those differences were thought to follow from the ongoing need for bilinguals to select which language to speak. This new study pushes back the explanation to a time before individuals are actively using languages and switching between them.

(York University/ScienceDaily)