An international team of researchers based in Singapore says the cognitive advantages of exposure to two languages are significant and reveal themselves early on, regardless of the languages spoken.
Inspired by the high proportion of Singaporean children being raised bilingually, they tested the cognitive abilities of 114 six-month-old babies by means of visual imaging and found they were able to recognize familiar images faster than their monolingual counterparts.
When presented with novel images, the bilingual babies paid more attention to the unknown than those being raised in monolingual homes.
The babies were shown a colour picture of either a bear or a wolf, and half the group was exposed to one of the two images until it became familiar to them. The bilingual babies grew bored of the familiar image faster than their monolingual counterparts.
Researchers selected this method as a test of cognitive abilities based on previous research linking increased attention to novel images with increased performance in early education and because visual habitation engages babies' natural curiosity.
Conversely, these past studies indicate that infants who tire of a familiar image rapidly can outperform their peers during early education in the domains of concept formation, non-verbal cognition, expressive and receptive language and IQ tests.
Given the simple fact that bilingual babies encounter more novel words than monolinguals and must pay more attention to learn to communicate effectively, the results are not surprising.
Researchers believe the greater information processing efficiency required in learning two languages at once gives babies the chance to develop skills for coping that will give them the upper hand when it comes to navigating early education.
The study is part of an ongoing birth cohort study of Singaporean parents and children called GUSTO, a tripartite project between A*STAR's Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) and the National University Hospital (NUH).
"This is good news for Singaporeans who are making the effort to be bilingual," says Associate Professor Chong Yap Seng, Lead Principal Investigator for GUSTO.
The study was published in the journal Child Development.
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