Exposing your baby to a second language during its first year of life may give them a cognitive advantage over monolingual babies. While most babies do not have problems to solve, this early exposure to a second language can boost their mental progress, giving them greater problem-solving skills into their adult lives.
Earlier studies have shown that people who speak multiple languages tend to have greater connectivity in areas of the brain associated with executive function. Executive function refers to things like planning, reasoning and problem solving. Researchers from the University of Washington detected that this multi-lingual benefit can be detected in babies that could not even talk yet.
The researchers found 16 11-month-old babies half of which were from English only speaking families while the other half were from English-Spanish speaking families. Using magnetoencephalography to measure the brain activity, researchers played a stream of meaningless speech sounds there were common to either English, Spanish or both languages.
Their work was published in the journal of Developmental Science and shows that bilingual family babies responded to both English and Spanish words. English speaking family babies only responded to English sounds. The difference is how we process “phonetic sounds” versus “acoustic sounds.”
More important that showing that babies can recognize different types of sounds before talking is the neurological impact it creates. Bilingual babies showed neurological responses in brain regions associated with executive function like the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex. The monolingual babies did not experience activity in these parts of the brain.
The researchers concluded that the need to distinguish between two languages presents a cognitive challenge, requiring these other brain areas to engage. According to study co-author Naja Ferjan Ramírez, this finding “suggests that bilingualism shapes not only language development, but also cognitive development more generally.”