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Friday, September 05, 2014

Bilingualism benefits our children

As a monoglot English speaker I am very jealous of those who have a gift for languages and particularly those who have been brought up speaking up more than one language.

Of course in Wales, we aim to ensure that all children learn Welsh as well as English, though it has to be said that we have had less success with other European languages. Now a new study has shown how children can gain from that policy.

The Independent reports on new research that has found that the benefits of growing up in a bilingual home start early and are broader than previously thought. They say that at just six months old, infants who are exposed to more than one language have an edge over their monolingual peers.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences say that bilingual babies get bored more quickly when they are repeatedly shown the same picture, and have a greater thirst for novel images; tendencies which have strong links to higher IQ later in life:

Measuring infants’ ability to process information isn’t straightforward, and visual habituation is one of the few tasks that babies can do which is a strong predictor of later IQ. In Singh's study, 114 Singaporean six-month-olds were repeatedly shown a picture of a cuddly toy representing either a bear or a wolf. Once they lost interest in this image, they were shown the alternative animal, which was novel to them.

The babies who were growing up in a bilingual environment became bored with their first picture more quickly, and showed a greater interest in the image of the unfamiliar soft toy. Both the rate at which infants become bored of an image and the preference for novel stimuli have been linked to performance in a range of cognitive domains, indicating that bilingual six-month-olds already have the building blocks in place to excel in a variety of areas later in life. These effects were not specific to any particular language, but were found across all language pairings studied.

According to the researchers, one explanation for these findings could be that bilingual children simply require greater information processing skills in order to rise to the challenges they face. Not only are they learning two languages with reduced exposure to each vocabulary, they are doing this whilst learning to distinguish between the two. The efficiency they develop in order to achieve this appears to stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

The emphasis on bilingualism in Wales is not just ideological, it is practical as well and can really help children get an edge on their monoglot counterparts.

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