Look who's listening: New study shows that babies can be bilingual

Cue Celine Dion's French catalogue.

Cue Celine Dion's French catalogue.

(IStock Photo/Getty)

Earlier this summer, a study out of the University of Kansas looked at how babies received different languages in the womb, learning that, in utero, babies are attuned to the rhythm of their dominant language and mentally switch gears when they hear a foreign tongue. At the time, we hypothesized that, if they have such capabilities within the womb, babies could very well be prepared to handle two languages once they're out of it. That hypothesis has turned out to be quite true, as new research shows that bilingual babies are more than capable to process the languages their environments contain.

In a new study conducted at Princeton, it has been shown than babies as young as 20 months old have the capacity to recognize and interpret dual languages. To find their participants, researchers headed to Montreal seeking out 24 bilingual babies (from households that spoke in French and English) as well as 24 bilingual adults. The test involved showing the participants pairs of familiar images (for example, a dog and an apple). Participants then heard a series of statements; unilingual statements ("Look! Find the dog!"), bilingual statements ("Look! Find the chien!") and statements that changed languages in each sentence ("That one looks fun! Le chien!"). These linguistic variations are similar in structure to what would be heard in a bilingual household.

To track what was going on in each baby's mind, researchers focused on their eyes. The team examined how long each infant looked at each photograph while hearing the sentences, as well as their pupil dilation, which is an involuntary response to how hard an individual's brain may be working. The adults were tested in the same way both as a baseline response, and to see if these features remain consistent in bilingual individuals over time.

When listening to phrases that switch from their dominant to their non-dominant language in the same sentence, both infants and adults showed a processing "cost", in that they needed a moment to reorder their brains for the switchover. This switchover was greatly reduced when languages changed from their non-dominant to dominant, and when the language change appeared in separate sentences. Similarly to the previous study about in utero babies, these babies very much showed a change in frequencies in order to receive the languages they heard. The adults in the study showed comparable results, suggesting that the system is formed early in life and then improved upon as we age.

Not only does this say a lot about the complexity of a baby's brain as they take in the world around them, but it may also illuminate why we often regard bilingual people as "smarter". Researchers believe that this cognitive system of language switching helps bilingual individuals to perform better on tasks that involve a type of mental switch in behaviour or learned system.

With results like these, there really should be no hesitation for parents to expose their babies to a bilingual household — they seem more than equipped to handle it. This is especially true in our country today, where not only are Canadians becoming more bilingual, they are speaking more diverse languages than ever before as well. As more and more evidence indicates, we need to keep an analytical eye on our youngest generation (they're operating in unique ways we've never noticed) to find out not only what we're born with, but how we can grow and evolve with those capabilities.