An NUS research study led by Associate Professor Leher Singh from NUS Psychology has shown that bilingual infants have an easier time than their monolingual peers in learning words in a third language. These findings were published in the journal Child Development in May.
The study, conducted between April 2016 and January 2017 in Singapore, involved 96 babies aged about one-and-a-half-years-old on average, half of whom were bilingual in English and Chinese languages while the other half were raised with exposure to English only. The two groups were also matched on their vocabulary size. The researchers tested the children’s response to sounds from Ndebele, a Zimbabwean Bantu language, which is distinct from English and Chinese given its use of clicks in place of consonants, and is unlikely to have been encountered by the children prior to the study.
Assoc Prof Singh, whose work centres on early language acquisition, explained that previous research showed that bilingualism makes language and cognitive systems more flexible. This study aimed to examine whether such flexibility begins in infancy and confers linguistic advantage for bilinguals over monolinguals.
In the experiments, the infants were shown two familiar objects along with vocal Ndebele click sounds denoting new words for the objects, while researchers observed the infants’ gaze in an adjacent room. The results showed that when a mispronunciation was simulated, the bilingual infants detected the difference in click consonants, while monolingual children did not respond to the change at all.
This is good news for parents raising bilingual children. Addressing a common misconception that bilingualism sets children up for a difficult time in language learning, Assoc Prof Singh assured parents it is quite the contrary. “We should not worry, and in fact, we should be aware of the fact that bilingualism is beneficial to children. Sometimes people think about bilingualism as suppressing language development, but this adds to other research suggesting that early bilingualism stimulates language development.”
“Parents may wonder if three languages is too much — and that is not an uncommon situation here in Singapore; this study suggests that being bilingual can help facilitate the acquisition of a third language,” she added.
Ms Audrey Wu, who has been raising her two-year-old in a bilingual environment, is glad about the findings. She said, “I was initially worried that it would delay language development or cause confusion, but it has been perfectly fine for her.”
The NUS research team is now doing further studies investigating whether this advantage extends to slightly older children and if it helps children build a vocabulary in languages containing sounds distinct from English and Chinese, such as Hindi, Sinhala and Ndebele. A previous study by the team last year found that babies who learnt two languages mastered language-specific rules faster.
The team also invites parents who are keen to participate in future research to reach out to them at the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre.