Mind your language: Bilingual babies better at executive functioning


Researchers have found that babies raised in bilingual households show brain activity linked to executive functioning as early as when they are 11 months old.

Bilingual children have more activity in areas associated with executive function, a set of mental abilities that includes problem-solving, shifting attention and other desirable cognitive traits, and the difference in their brain activity is evident as early as 11 months of age.

“Our results suggest that before they even start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practice at tasks related to executive function,” said lead author Naja Ferjan Ramirez from University of Washington.

“This suggests that bilingualism shapes not only language development, but also cognitive development more generally,” Ramirez added in the paper published online in the journal Developmental Science.

Brains of babies from bilingual families are more open to learning new language sounds, compared with babies from monolingual families.

The team used magnetoencephalography (MEG), which measures magnetic changes given off by active nerve cells.

They compared the brain responses to the language sounds of 16 11-month-old babies — eight from English-only households and eight from Spanish-English households.

 The Spanish-English bilingual babies had stronger brain responses to speech sounds, compared with English-only babies, the study found.
 The findings suggested that the boost bilingualism gives to executive function areas in the brain could arise from switching back and forth between languages, allowing them to routinely practice and improve executive function skills.
 “The 11-month-old baby brain is learning whatever language or languages are present in the environment and is equally capable of learning two languages as it is of learning one language,” Ferjan Ramirez said.
 “Our results underscore the notion that not only very young children capable of learning multiple languages, but that early childhood is the optimum time for them to begin,” she said.

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