Babies Raised In Bilingual Homes Develop Sharper Attention Skills Faster

TORONTO — Babies raised in bilingual homes show advantages in the development of attention compared to infants who only hear one language, according to a study by researchers at York University in Toronto.

The researchers concluded, then, that exposure to bilingual environments is a significant factor in the early development of attention abilities, and could set up life-long cognitive benefits.

“By studying infants – a population that does not yet speak any language – we discovered that the real difference between monolingual and bilingual individuals later in life is not in the language itself, but rather, in the attention system used to focus on language,” explains co-senior author Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University, in a media release.

Bialystok and her team conducted two separate studies in which they measured infants’ eye movements to assess attention span and learning. Half the infants studied lived in monolingual environments, the other half lived in an environment in which they heard two languages spoken about half of the time each.

The infants were shown images as they lay in a crib with a camera and a screen. The researchers tracked and recorded the infants’ eye movements as they watched pictures appear on the screen above them in different areas of the screen. This tracking work was performed 60 times for each infant.

The first study gave the infants one of two images in the center of the screen, followed by another image appearing on the right or left side. They came to expect that when a pink and white image appears in the center of the screen, for instance, they would soon see an attractive target image on the left of the screen. If a blue and yellow image appears in the center, the target image would appear on the right. All infants in the experiment learned these rules.

In the next experiment, the researchers switched the image rule halfway. They tracked the babies’ eye movements and found that those who were exposed to a bilingual environment learned the new rule quicker, signified by anticipating where the next target image would appear on the screen.

“What is so ground-breaking about these results, is that they look at infants who are not bilingual yet and who are only hearing the bilingual environment. This is what’s having the impact on cognitive performance,” says co-author Scott Adler, associate professor in York’s Department of Psychology and the Centre for Vision Research.

The authors believe that being immersed in an environment where infants are constantly processing and discerning the differences between two languages could explain why a baby would develop sharper attention more quickly in a bilingual setting.

“This study tells us that from the very earliest stage of development, the networks that are the basis for developing attention are forming differently in infants who are being raised in a bilingual environment. Why is that important? It’s because attention is the basis for all cognition,” concludes Bialystok.

The study was published in Developmental Science.

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