Bilingual babies have more intellectual edge than monolingual babies when it comes to problem solving, attention management and other cognitive abilities, a new study has found.

Being bilingual has proven to be a positive trait for many adults. In a new study from University of Washington, researchers found that brain activity associated with this ability can be observed as early as 11 months old, when babies are about to utter their first words.

"Our results suggest that before they even start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practice at tasks related to executive function," says study lead author Naja Ferjan Ramírez.

More Than Linguistic Power

Executive functions pertain to a group of mental abilities such as planning, memory control, flexibility and reasoning, among many others.

In the study, the team found that compared to monolingual babies, bilingual ones exhibited stronger brain responses to speech sounds in the two areas of the brain responsible for executive functions.

Ramirez says the findings follow studies made with adult populations. The positive impacts of bilingualism to executive functions may be rooted from individuals' need to shift focus from one language to another, enabling them to constantly practice and boost their executive function skills.

Ramirez says their work suggests that being bilingual does not only have positive effects on language skills, it also boost general cognition as well.

Being More Open

The research also shows that bilingual babies are more open to learning new language sounds than monolingual babies. In fact, co-author Patricia Kuhl says monolingual study participants had narrowed sound perception and non-discrimination of foreign language sounds, which they used to discriminate when they were still 6 months old.

The value of being open to language sounds is a positive and highly adaptive activity for the brain.

The Study

The team used magnetoencephalography (MEG), which identifies the magnetic changes emitted by active brain cells. Such test can exactly determine the time and location of the brain activity.

The study involved 16 babies aged 11 months old, eight of which came from English-only households and the other eight from homes whose residents speak both English and Spanish.

The babies all sat in a high chair and wore a MEG scanner. They were made to listen to speech sounds in English, Spanish and sounds shared by both languages. The recording lasted for 18 minutes.

Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None?

With the mix of two languages, should parents be worried if their babies are learning each language sufficiently? The study says no.

Evidence shows that bilingual babies are sensitive to both English and Spanish, meaning they are learning both. Aside from that, bilingual babies show the same sensitivity to English as monolingual babies, signifying that they are learning the language at the same rate.

In the end, Ramirez says their work emphasizes that young children are not only capable of learning numerous languages, it also shows that early childhood is the best time to raise them to be bilingual.

The study was published online in Developmental Science on April 4.

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