According to the author, Deborah Bach, scientists and parents alike have touted the benefits of introducing babies to two languages. According to this article, bilingual experience has been shown to improve cognitive abilities, specifically problem-solving. The question this article asks is the following: how can babies in monolingual households develop skills that infants raised in a bilingual home do?
A new study by I-LABS researchers, published July 17 in Mind, Brain, and Education, is one of the first to investigate how babies can learn a second language outside of the home. Therefore, this study sought to answer the question: ‘Can babies be taught a second language if they don’t get foreign language exposure at home, and if so, what kind of foreign language exposure, and how much, is needed to spark that learning?’
The study was taken to and conducted in Madrid, Spain. Here, an English-language method, curriculum and implementing took place in Madrid’s public education system, where researchers were able to enroll 280 infants and children from families of varying income levels. Based on I-LABS research, methods emphasized in this study were social interactions, play, and high quality and quantity of language from the teachers. These approaches included “infant-directed speech”, a style used by parents to talk to their babies, which includes simpler grammar, higher and exaggerated pitch, and drawn-out vowels. According to their research this type of approach helps babies learn language.
Babies in the study, ages 7-33.5 months were given one hour of English sessions a day for 18 weeks, while the control group received the Madrid schools standard bilingual program. According to Bach, both groups of children were tested in Spanish and English at the start and end of the 18 weeks. The children also wore special vests with lightweight recorders to record their English learning. The recordings were analyzed to determine how many English words and phrases each child spoke.
The study found that by the end of the 18 weeks, the children in the program out-performed the children in the control group in English comprehension and production. Thus the findings in this study suggest that even babies from monolingual homes can develop bilingual abilities at an early age with the right science-based approach that combines the features known to grow children’s language. It is possible to give very young children the opportunity to start learning a second language, according to Ferjan Ramirez.
Follow-up testing 18 weeks later showed the children had retained what they learned. The English gains were similar between children attending the two schools serving predominantly low-income neighborhoods and the two serving mid-income areas, suggesting that wealth was not a significant factor in the infants’ ability to learn a foreign language. Children’s native language (Spanish) continued to grow as they were learning English, and was not negatively affected by introducing a second language, according to Bach.
According to the author the information provided has the potential to transform how early language instruction is approached in the United States and worldwide.