Bilingual babies get head start in language skills, Singapore study finds

Dr Leher from NUS led novel study showing babies pick up language better when exposed to more than one language

 | Singapore | 17 May 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Associate Professor Leher Singh, National University of Singapore (NUS) - PHOTO / Infant and Child Language Centre at NUS
Associate Professor Leher Singh, National University of Singapore (NUS) – PHOTO / Infant and Child Language Centre at NUS

A new Singapore university study, led by Associate Professor Leher Singh, found that babies exposed to two languages at the same time can master the rules of each language faster than monolingual babies.

In the study, psychologists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that babies exposed to two languages learn languages faster and develop language skills before they turn one year old, compared to those who are exposed to only one language, according to media reports.

For Punjabi parents, perhaps this should give them another reason to teach their kids their mother tongue.

The one-year-long study, released on May 16, involved 72 babies aged between 12 and 13 months — typically the age they start to learn new words — were exposed to either Mandarin only, or both English and Mandarin.

The study compared the ability of the babies to recognise the tone changes and the meaning of a word when it was spoken in English and Mandarin separately. It found that when the bilingual babies were spoken to in English, they ignored tone when learning new words, but when they were spoken to in Mandarin, they responded to tone changes when learning new words, accordng to a report at can (CNA: Bilingual babies get head start in language skills, Singapore study finds, 16 May 2016).

However, it said babies who were only exposed to Mandarin did not show mastery of the language’s tone system until six months later when spoken to in Mandarin, at around 18 months old.

The findings suggest that bilingual babies understood the Mandarin tone system earlier than the monolingual babies, researchers said.

In the report, Dr Leher said the bilingual children were also able to learn words in each language more effectively whenever new words were introduced to their vocabularies. This dispels widely held beliefs that bilingual children learn words more slowly because they are processing two languages.

The study found that although the bilingual babies were not speaking words yet, they understood many words in both languages. This indicates that babies can navigate the rules of language – even when the rules conflict for different languages – and can use this information by the time they are around one year old, researchers said.

“Our findings show that more exposure to one language is not necessarily better for babies. What led to better performance in learning Mandarin was being raised bilingually, with exposure to both English and Mandarin, rather than solely to Mandarin,” she was qouted in the report.

“This is a novel finding, and the first study we know of that shows accelerated word learning in bilingual children, strongly suggesting that babies are not thwarted by learning two very different languages.”

In another report (Straits Times: Bilingual babies ‘learn languages faster, 16 May 2016), the researchers found that one-year-old infants who have been exposed to both English and Chinese are able to detect tone changes in Mandarin speech, using a method that tracks the time that they spent looking at an object on a computer screen while a word is read out to them.

At the same time, they ignored tone changes in English, showing that they can differentiate between the two languages and understand the different rules of each language.

“In Mandarin, when you change the tone of a word, it changes the word meaning,” she said. “In English, we have changes in the pitch of our voice but it doesn’t change the word meaning.”

Dr Leher did her PhD at Brown University and currently holds the position of Associate Professor and Director of Research at the National University of Singapore’s Psychology Department.

Her research examines the role of variability on early spoken word recognition and word learning in infants, as well as infant predictors of childhood language abilities.


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  1. First we lost a teen’s life. Then childbood was lost with kindergarten and skills of smart phones/ipads and now babies’innocence is lost. Humans are now born to study and work from womb to tomb and may be the next change may be humans who will be robots who are paid bkg bucks but time to spend on quality life styles but to serve the rich.