As I interact with parents and families who speak multiple languages, I have found that it is a commonly held belief that although children can learn more than one language from birth, the exposure to multiple languages will slow down a child’s language learning overall. Another common assumption is that bilingual children may have smaller vocabularies in each language although the combined vocabulary size of both languages will exceed monolingual children. New research from Singapore refutes these notions, finding instead that bilingual babies learn languages faster and more effectively than monolingual children.
The study conducted at the National University of Singapore, measured the ability of 12 to 13 month old babies to recognize tone changes and vocabulary in Mandarin and English. The researchers found that when listening to Mandarin, the babies reacted to differences in tonal sounds while they ignored tonal changes when listening to English. Babies who only had exposure to Mandarin did not display the same tonal recognition until the age of 18 months, a 5-6 month delay as compared to the bilingual babies.
Additionally, despite the fact that the 12-13 month old babies were not yet producing spoken language, the study provided evidence that the bilingual babies recognized words and language patterns at an accelerated rate as compared with their monolingual peers. The bilingual babies learned new words faster with greater retention and displayed better ability in distinguishing between the two languages and using each accordingly.
This new study supports the findings of a previous research from Holland. The Dutch study concluded that by 13 months, babies who are exposed to multiple languages have a larger receptive vocabulary than monolingual children and that by 20 months the children’s spoken vocabulary was equal (although the bilingual children’s vocabulary was in actuality doubled due to speaking two languages).
The takeaway for parents of bilingual children is this: humans have an amazing ability to learn language from birth. Learning more than one language as an infant can have lasting benefits to language learning in both languages. Bilingual babies will learn language rules more quickly and will develop larger vocabularies at an accelerated pace. This is good news for parents and children!
However, a cautionary note: language learning must be supported by rich, responsive interactions between infants and consistently supporting caregivers who interact with them on a daily basis. To learn more about how to support multilingual language acquisition read Supporting Language Development in Multilingual Settings. For individualized support and consultation, please click here.