By Keelin Titzer
Note: Keelin was the second baby to use the Your Baby Can Read! program. She is 19 years old and has already completed the requirements to graduate from one of the top ten public universities in the US. Keelin’s results are exceptional. This does not mean that your baby will end up doing as well academically as Keelin. The typical results of using Your Baby Can Read! (YBCR) are that babies and toddlers who consistently use YBCR for at least 6 months learn to read some words and they learn vocabulary skills from using the program.
Experimental research involving infants raised in single- and multiple-language environments suggests that bilingual infants often develop cognitive advantages compared to monolingual infants. This bilingual advantage has been found not only in the area of language, but also in various cognitive tasks outside the domain of language. Although most studies investigating bilingualism concentrate on older children or adults, there is a growing body of research studying the effects of bilingualism on the developing minds of infants and the reasons that this effect exists. Studies have investigated the rationale for why bilingualism is advantageous as well as the effects of multilingual exposure on executive functioning and flexibility of learning.
While most studies have concentrated on the benefits of bilingualism, some have attempted to identify the reason for the bilingual advantage. According to Sebastián-Gallés, Albareda-Castellot, Weikum, and Werker (2012), many scientists have traditionally preferred the explanation that multilinguals have cognitive gains due to their practice inhibiting the language they are not currently using. Sebastián-Gallés et al. (2012) investigated the source of the multilingual advantage and found evidence to the contrary, leading them to propose that bilingual benefits derive from skills used in the distinguishing of languages that infants are learning. The researchers habituated 48 9-month-old infants to silent videos of people speaking languages with which the infant was unfamiliar, and found that only bilingual infants were able to discern when the language changed. Because of this difference in ability between monolingual and bilingual infants, the researchers concluded that bilinguals have an advantage that stems from their ability to differentiate the languages to which they are exposed. Similarly, Brito and Barr (2012) noted that children who learn multiple languages at a young age gain experience in learning from various inputs because they must learn each language’s conventions while keeping them separate. Both of these articles also indicate that the positive effects of bilingualism extend to aspects outside of the domain of language.
Some studies have proposed that exposure to multiple languages during infancy has led infants to become more flexible at learning in general. These studies suggest that bilingualism influences infants to become not just more adept with specific tasks but at cognitive processes overall. Kovács and Mehler (2009b) found when studying 12-month-olds that bilinguals are able to learn two speech structures at the same time, unlike monolinguals. They studied 44 infants, half bilingual and half monolingual, and familiarized them with AAB and ABA speech structures. The type of structure the infant heard predicted whether a toy would be shown on the left or right side of the screen. In the proceeding testing phase, infants heard a speech structure and, if they had learned both structures, looked to the side of the screen where the toy would have appeared in the familiarization phase. Bilinguals looked to the correct side upon hearing both structures, but monolinguals only did so upon hearing the AAB structure. This study thus helps establish that bilingual infants are more flexible learners, more easily ascertaining the connections between stimuli in their environments.
Likewise, Sebastián-Gallés et al. (2012) demonstrate bilingual infants’ aptitude in discriminating between stimuli. Unlike Kovács and Mehler (2009b), the researchers tested infants in discriminating languages based on silent videos. Since only the bilingual infants were able to determine when the language switched, the researchers found a bilingual advantage in recognizing and recalling visual perceptual cues that differentiate languages. These studies combined indicate that bilingual infants have benefits in the areas of visual discrimination and auditory discrimination: two areas of learning.
While focusing on memory flexibility, Brito and Barr (2012) also studied the idea that learning multiple languages leads to increased cognitive flexibility. They hypothesized that babies raised in bilingual homes would reveal more skillful memory generalization than monolingual infants. Infants assigned to the monolingual and bilingual experimental groups watched an experimenter demonstrate the same three actions on a puppet while infants in the control group saw no puppet demonstration. Then all infants were encouraged to play with a puppet they had never seen before and the researchers watched to see if the infants would generalize the actions they saw in the puppet demonstration to their play with the new puppet. Bilingual infants from the experimental group were more likely to generalize actions from the previously shown puppet to the novel puppet than monolingual experimental group infants. The researchers concluded that their results supported their hypothesis that bilingual infants have benefits in the area of memory generalization, which is evidence of flexible learning.
Others have concluded that early bilingualism influences infants to be more adept in using their cognitive control system. These studies assert that one of the benefits of being raised in a multilingual environment is the enhancement of executive functions. Executive functions include the regulation and control of cognitive processes such as memory, problem solving, planning, reasoning, attentional control, and inhibition of responses. These are higher-level capabilities that take place in the prefrontal cortex, which is very underdeveloped in infancy. Still, some researchers have found ways to measure executive functions in infancy (Kovács & Mehler, 2009a; Sebastián-Gallés et al, 2012).
Kovács and Mehler (2009a) assessed cognitive control by studying infants’ ability to inhibit a learned response by replacing it with a contradictory one. In this study, the researchers examined 40 7-month-olds, half monolingual and half bilingual. In each of the three experiments, the researchers presented infants with an auditory or visual cue, repeatedly presented them with a reward stimulus, and then changed the location of the reward stimulus. As anticipated, both monolingual and bilingual infants were able to learn the location of the first reward stimulus, yet Kovács and Mehler (2009a) found that in all three trials bilingual infants were better able to adjust to the new location of the reward stimulus, a task that indicated use of executive functions, whereas monolingual infants were unable to anticipate the new location of the reward after several repeated trials. This study is one of few researching preverbal infants raised in bilingual homes, and indicates a clear cognitive advantage of early bilingualism in the domain of executive functioning.
Sebastián-Gallés et al. (2012) measured one aspect of executive functions when they studied attentional control. They hypothesized that the knowledge of multiple languages from birth, or crib bilingualism, increases the sensitivity of attention in the distinguishing of unknown languages. This perceptual attentiveness is just one area of executive function, but when combined with the Kovács and Mehler (2009a) study, people interested in bilingualism can get a better idea of the extent of bilingual infants’ capacity in executive functions. While Sebastián-Gallés et al. (2012) demonstrated bilingual infants’ capabilities involving attentional control, Kovács and Mehler (2009a) established their ability to inhibit responses.
All four of these studies establish the strong and diverse benefits of learning multiple languages from infancy. Although in past decades parents have worried about potential difficulty a child might face due to the acquisition of multiple languages simultaneously, recent research clearly demonstrates that bilingual children not only do not struggle when learning multiple languages, but also develop a number of cognitive benefits from this experience. As indicated by these studies, infant bilingualism increases expertise in the domain of executive functions and adaptability in learning due to infants’ practice distinguishing the multiple languages that they experience.
Brito, N. & Barr, R. (2012). Influence of bilingualism on memory generalization during infancy. Developmental Science, 15, 812-816.
Kovács, A. M. & Mehler, J. (2009a). Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 6556-6560.
Kovács, A. M. & Mehler, J. (2009b). Flexible learning of multiple speech structures in bilingual infants. Science, 325, 611-612.
Sebastián-Gallés, N., Albareda-Castellot, B., Weikum, W. M., & Werker, J. W. (2012). A bilingual advantage in visual language discrimination in infancy. Psychological Science, 23, 994-999.