Bilingual or multilingual people are often believed to be smarter. A new study (1) by the University of Washington attempts to shine some light on that belief as they tested 16 babies from either English-only households or English and Spanish-speaking households.
During the study, they exposed the babies to a large variety of sounds from both the English and Spanish languages and monitored their responses with magnetoencephalography (MEG).
Higher Brain Activity
Unsurprisingly, the babies from bilingual households reacted more actively to both languages but what’s interesting is that they also exhibited higher activities in their prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. Not-coincidentally, these are the areas of the brain responsible for our problem-solving and decision-making abilities.
Naja Ferjan Ramirez, the lead author of the study, shared in a press release (2) that “Our results suggest that before they even start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practice at tasks related to executive function,”
Co-author Patricia Kuhl also added that “Babies raised listening to two languages seem to stay ‘open’ to the sounds of novel languages longer than their monolingual peers, which is a good and highly adaptive thing for their brains to do,”
While this study does include a fairly small sample size, it’s not the only one to reach the same conclusion. Almost all studies done on the subject found that bilingual and multilingual adults have better recalling memories, problem-solving skills, attention-switching speed, and planning skills. These skills are noticeable at any stage of a person’s development, from the cradle, through school, and into adulthood (3).
In short, there doesn’t seem to be any downside to being bilingual from as early on as possible.
“Our results underscore the notion that not only are very young children capable of learning multiple languages, but that early childhood is the optimum time for them to begin,” Ferjan Ramírez says.
The good news for same-language couples is that there are ways to raise a bilingual child even if there’s no second language in the household. Here are some quick tips from the Linguistic Society (4). The Language Exchange community is also a great resource to use to better raise a bilingual child.