Your baby's first 15 words, translated for bilingual parents
Posted May 18
You may want to teach your child how to hablar otro idioma.
A new study out of the University of Singapore found that children who are exposed to a second language before they turn 1 year old get a head start on their language skills compared to those who only know one language, according to Channel News Asia.
The study, which followed the lives of 72 babies who were taught either Mandarin Chinese, English, or both languages, found those who were taught both languages were better at understanding shifts in language tones. Meanwhile, babies who were only exposed to Mandarin didn’t understand the language tone system until at least six months later.
This suggests that bilingual babies understand tone systems better than monolingual babies, according to Channel News Asia.
Those bilingual babies also learned new words more effectively in each language.
But the study’s researchers don’t want people to think that bilingual babies are better than monolingual babies. Rather, it just shows that learning two languages can help a child learn language better.
“Our findings show that more exposure to one language is not necessarily better for babies. What led to better performance in learning Mandarin was being raised bilingually, with exposure to both English and Mandarin, rather than solely to Mandarin,” according to Leher Singh, an associated professor at the National University of Singapore. “This is a novel finding, and the first study we know of that shows accelerated word learning in bilingual children, strongly suggesting that babies are not thwarted by learning two very different languages.”
Still, there’s been bundles of other research from the past few years that show bilingual babies benefit from learning another language. For example, a University of Washington study published last month found that babies who learned a second language from as early as 11 months old are better at their brain’s executive functions — meaning they are better at problem-solving, shifting their attention and other cognitive abilities than monolingual babies, according to Science Daily.
The study also found that babies who are raised in bilingual houses are also more open to learning new language sounds, which improves their ability to learn another language, too.
"Monolingual babies show a narrowing in their perception of sounds at about 11 months of age — they no longer discriminate foreign-language sounds they successfully discriminated at 6 months of age," the study’s co-author Patricia Kuhl told ScienceDaily. "But 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.”
The researchers — who compared the brain responses of eight babies of an English-only family and eight from Spanish-English homes when listening to different sounds — said that this proves learning two languages has benefits for youngsters.
"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," said Naja Ferjan Ramírez, one of the study’s researchers, according to Science Daily.
Other research has found that learning another language can increase a child’s emotional understanding, too. As Deseret News National reported in 2015, a study from the University of Chicago found that children born in bilingual families, or who are exposed to secondary languages, develop an ability to understand other points of view, which makes them more empathetic.
"Children in multilingual environments routinely have the opportunity to track who speaks which language, who understands which content and who can converse with whom," a team led by Samantha Fan, lead researcher of the study, wrote.
Of course, some research suggests that there’s little to no difference in learning another language. In fact, researcher Angela de Bruin of the University of Edinburgh said that people who learn a second language only maintain half of what they learn.
“Our overview,” de Bruin said, according to The New Yorker, “shows that there is a distorted image of the actual study outcomes on bilingualism, with researchers (and media) believing that the positive effect of bilingualism on nonlinguistic cognitive processes is strong and unchallenged.”
Still, much of the evidence points towards bilingualism helping babies, according to de Bruin, especially when taught from a young age. To help you assist your baby in learning language skills, we’ve taken the 15 most common first words of babies and translated them into Spanish, French and Italian.
Spanish: hasta luego
French: au revoir
Spanish: Uh oh
French: Uh oh
Italian: Uh oh
Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret Digital Media.