According to a new study by researchers at the National University of Singapore, babies who grow up learning two languages, like English and Mandarin, have a better understanding of both of those languages. The study challenges assumptions that bilingual babies confuse the two languages, or that learning two languages at once is too heavy a burden on them. The study focused on babies who were between 12 and 13 months of age, and were in the process of learning new words.
Working with 72 babies in Singapore, the researchers found that learning both English and Mandarin actually strengthened the babies’ understanding of Mandarin compared to children who were being raised in a monolingual Mandarin household. One major difference between the two languages is that tone can change the meaning of a word in Mandarin, which isn’t a factor in English. The researchers found that bilingual babies were better at distinguishing between tones in Mandarin, and ignored it in English. Monolingual babies took about six months longer to develop the skills to distinguish tones.
Raising children in bilingual households has been long seen by many as detrimental to their development, but this study shows that it is actually quite the opposite. Further studies will be required to verify these findings, and the researchers behind this study already have some other projects in the works. They are also interested, for example, if determining if bilingualism makes children more open-minded about the world around them, since languages are closely tied to social and moral judgments and identity. Such findings will prove important in an increasingly globalized world, wherein knowing more than one language can make a big difference in a person’s life. Waiting till high school or even college to learn additional languages, as many American students do, simply isn’t as effective as growing up bilingual.