Bilingual babies learn faster

19 May 2016 | Research
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Ms Tricia Wong with her 14-month-old daughter Zelene Wong participating in a study on bilingualism in babies

Researchers from NUS Psychology have found that babies who learnt two languages mastered language-specific rules faster than monolingual babies.

Associate Professor Leher Singh and her team, comprising PhD student Charlene Fu and research assistant Ms Felicia Poh, conducted a study involving some 70 babies which explored their knowledge of the rules of Mandarin. Published in Frontiers in Psychology in May, the study investigated infants’ mastery of the Mandarin tone system in monolingual Mandarin infants and English-Mandarin bilingual infants at 12 months. Mandarin is a tonal language, where different tones on phonetically identical words connote different meanings. English, however, is a non-tonal language, with tone being used to convey varying emotions or stress, among other uses.

The researchers found that the bilingual babies were able to interpret tone accurately at 12 months when learning new words in Mandarin. At the same time, these bilingual babies ignored tone changes when learning new words in English. Monolingual Mandarin infants were unable to use tone when learning words in Mandarin at 12 months and only demonstrated sensitivity to Mandarin tones at 18 months. This suggests that at the tender age of 12 months, bilingual babies are able to internalise and apply different language rules across English and Mandarin, even when the linguistic rules conflict each other.

Assoc Prof Singh said that the results dispelled commonly held beliefs about bilingual children being slower when learning words. “The bilingual babies showed different strategies for processing English and Mandarin. When they’re learning a new word in Mandarin, they listened out for tone. When they’re learning a new word in English, they correctly ignored tone changes,” she said. As such, learning two different languages could be beneficial to mastering each language individually, she added.

The researchers also found that bilingual babies develop dual language skills when they were just a year old. “This is a novel finding and the first study we know of that shows accelerated word learning in bilingual babies, strongly suggesting that babies are not thwarted by learning two very different languages,” said Assoc Prof Singh.

The research team’s upcoming projects include understanding how babies track words and process sentences in speech and how proficiently they detect errors in each language, as well as exploring whether bilingualism plays a role in influencing babies’ social and moral judgements in their perception of people.

See press release and media coverage.