U. WASHINGTON (US) — Learning a second language is second nature to babies, but new research finds the ability may begin to fade as early as the first birthday.
Scientists say a new study published in the Journal of Phonetics that investigates the brain mechanisms contributing to infants’ prowess at learning languages could boost bilingualism in adults as well.
“The bilingual brain is fascinating because it reflects humans’ abilities for flexible thinking—bilingual babies learn that objects and events in the world have two names, and flexibly switch between these labels, giving the brain lots of good exercise,” says study co-author Patricia Kuhl, professor of speech and hearing sciences and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.
Brains of babies raised in bilingual households show a longer period of being flexible to different languages, especially if they hear a lot of language at home. Also, the relative amount of each language babies are exposed to affects their vocabulary as toddlers.
Kuhl’s previous studies show that between 8 and 10 months of age, monolingual babies become increasingly able to distinguish speech sounds of their native language, while at the same time their ability to distinguish sounds from a foreign language declines.
For instance, between 8 and 10 months of age babies exposed to English become better at detecting the difference between “r” and “l” sounds, which are prevalent in the English language. This is the same age when Japanese babies, who are not exposed to as many “r” and “l” sounds, decline in their ability to detect them.
In the current study, babies from monolingual (English or Spanish) and bilingual (English and Spanish) households wore caps fitted with electrodes to measure brain activity with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a device that records the flow of energy in the brain. Babies heard background speech sounds in one language, and then a contrasting sound in the other language occurred occasionally.
For example, a sound that is used in both Spanish and English served as the background sound and then a Spanish “da” and an English “ta” each randomly occurred 10 percent of the time as contrasting sounds. If the brain can detect the contrasting sound, there is a signature pattern called the mismatch response that can be detected with the EEG.
Monolingual babies at 6-9 months of age showed the mismatch response for both the Spanish and English contrasting sounds, indicating that they noticed the change in both languages. But at 10-12 months of age, monolingual babies only responded to the English contrasting sound.
Bilingual babies showed a different pattern. At 6-9 months, bilinguals did not show the mismatch response, but at 10-12 months they showed the mismatch for both sounds, suggesting that the bilingual brain remains flexible to languages for a longer period of time, possibly because bilingual infants are exposed to a greater variety of speech sounds at home.
To see if those brain responses at 10-12 months related to later speaking skills, the researchers followed up with the parents when the babies were about 15 months old to see how many Spanish and English words the children knew.
They found that early brain responses to language could predict infants’ word learning ability. That is, the size of the bilingual children’s vocabulary was associated with the strength of their brain responses in discriminating languages at 10-12 months of age.
Early exposure to language also made a difference: Bilingual babies exposed to more English at home, including from their parents, other relatives and family friends, subsequently produced more words in English. The pattern held true for Spanish.
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