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STUDY: Learning A Second Language Boosts Toddlers' Brain Function

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By: FYI Living

Can learning a second language as a toddler give your child a cognitive edge over kids who wait until high school French class? The authors of a recent study believe the answer is “Oui.”

Among toddlers as young as 2 years, bilingual youngsters outscored their monolingual counterparts in the area known as “executive functioning.” To toddlers, this comes down to sorting shapes, but for older kids and adults, executive functioning includes important mental tasks such as planning, strategizing, organizing and goal-setting.

These skills are highly relevant to the ever-hot topics of ADHD and autism, as children (and adults) diagnosed with these disorders typically have impaired executive function.

The bilingual and monolingual children in the study demonstrated no difference in basic cognitive skills, however, and their vocabulary size (whether from one language or two combined) was the same.

Parents who want to help their child develop early executive functioning skills through bilingualism might consider a bilingual caregiver, an immersion preschool or a child-appropriate foreign language program such as Little Pim or MUZZY. Or better yet, dust off that old college Spanish textbook and have the whole family learn a second language together (it’s good for parents’ old brains, too).

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Summary

Bilingual children outscore kids who only speak one language in tests that assess various cognitive skills like “executive functions.” This is attributed to their “practice in exercising selective attention and cognitive flexibility.” However, two-year olds have much less experience in language production, and there have been no studies on toddlers in this regard. Results showed that learning two languages in early childhood provides advantages in cognitive skills from a very early age.

Introduction

Until now the abilities of bilingual children have been studied only after an age of four years and it was not known that at what age they start developing these language skills. This study was the first of its kind to look into the cognitive development and skills of toddlers as young as two years of age growing up bilingual, compared to those children who were raised with only one language.

Methodology

  • A total of 63 toddlers were included in the study. Children who were exposed to their primary language 80% of their time were termed monolingual. Similarly, those who were exposed to two languages like English and French were termed bilinguals.
  • The children were tested with a set of questionnaires to test their cognitive and executive functions and language abilities. This was done on two different occasions with parents present, but out of sight of the child to decrease interference from them.
  • The tests for executive functions included short experiments like locating a hidden treat in a set of drawers after instruction in a language known to the child; sorting smaller and bigger shapes; and asking the child to refrain from opening a gift or snack in absence of an observer.

Results

  • Results showed that both bilingual and monolingual children had equal basic cognitive skills with a similar vocabulary. Although the vocabulary of bilingual children in a given language was considerably small as compared to monolinguals, the total vocabulary size when both the languages were combined was comparable.
  • However results of the various executive functioning tests showed that bilingual children were at an advantage over monolingual children.
  • The most significant difference between the two groups was seen in sorting smaller and bigger shapes.

Shortcomings

Authors agree that the results are significantly different in the two language groups in only one of the executive function tasks, so it is difficult to reach firm conclusions. They also suggest that some amount of gender differences are noted in the tests, especially in the gift or snack test, so further studies may be useful to understand the hypothesis better.

Conclusion

The results from this study show that the children who grow up with two languages (bilingual) show a definite advantage in cognitive and other developmental skills compared to those children who grow up with only one language (monolingual). This is the first study to demonstrate this advantage in children as young as two years of age. There is evidence that children can differentiate between different languages at a very early age; because of this ability, bilingual children learn to manage their attention between two languages, developing their executive functioning earlier than monolingual children. This study holds encouraging news for parents who hope to raise their children in a multi-lingual household.

For More Information:

The Effects of Learning Two Languages on Toddlers’ Cognitive Skills
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2011
By Diane Poulin-Dubois; Agnes Blaye
From the Centre for Research in Human Development, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada and UFR de Psychologie, Université de Provence, Aix en Provence Cedex, France

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the paper appeared in The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2010; it appeared this year.

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