The sooner you expose a baby to a second language, the smarter they’ll be

Just hearing two languages helps babies develop cognitive skills before they even speak. Here's how - and how you can help them develop those skills.

A new study shows that babies raised in bilingual environments develop core cognitive skills like decision-making and problem-solving -- before they even speak.


The study, out of the University of Washington, tested 16 babies. Half came from English-speaking households and half came from English- and Spanish-speaking households. The babies listen to a variety of speech sounds, from preverbal to English- and Spanish-specific sounds. Researchers monitored the babies' responses to the sounds using magnetoencephalography (MEG), which helped them clearly identify which parts of the brain were activated via electromagnetic activity. You will never see a more cuddly scientific setup:

The babies from English- and Spanish-speaking households had lots of activity in the prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex -- the regions of the brain responsible for executive functions, like decision-making and problem-solving. “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 Ramírez in a press release. "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," co-author Patricia Kuhl said in the same release.

That adaptive mechanism reaps enormous benefits for both babies and adults. Many studies, like this one out of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, have shown that bilingual adults have better executive brain functions than adults who only speak one language. That means bilingual adults are better able to switch focus between tasks, recall memories, and demonstrate higher-level problem-solving and planning skills. Bilingual kids demonstrate those skills, too. Plus, all of those executive brain functions are key to success in school, and academic success is a big indicator of long-term happiness. Learning another language can even help prevent or delay the onset of degenerative brain diseases like dementia or Alzheimer's for older adults.

Basically, there is no downside to being bilingual -- and the best time to start is early. “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 concluded. Neuroscientist Sam Wang agrees with her:

The best part is that you can raise a bilingual child -- even if you're not bilingual. Here are some tips from the Linguistic Society:

  • If you're already bilingual, or part of a bilingual household, then try the “one parent, one language" method. Basically, clarify which parent speaks which language to the baby. That way, everyone knows what to expect - and your baby knows how to respond.

  • If you aren't already bilingual, that's okay! You can still expose your child to different languages. Lots of foreign words make their way into English. You can point out foreign foods every time you have them, or watch a bilingual show with your child. As long as you expose them to the foreign words in a consistent way with the same context, they'll reap the benefits.

  • Try using a Language Exchange community, where you and your child can speak another language with native speakers together. You'll both reap the benefits with constant practice.

    Now get out there and reap those cognitive benefits!

    Higher ed isn’t immune to COVID-19, but the crisis will make it stronger

    The pandemic reminds us that our higher education system, with all its flaws, remains a key part of our strategic reserve.

    Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
    • America's higher education system is under great scrutiny as it adapts to a remote-learning world. These criticisms will only make higher ed more innovative.
    • While there are flaws in the system and great challenges ahead, higher education has adapted quickly to allow students to continue learning. John Katzman, CEO of online learning organization Noodle Partners, believes this is cause for optimism not negativity.
    • Universities are pillars of scientific research on the COVID-19 frontlines, they bring facts in times of uncertainty and fake news, and, in a bad economy, education is a personal floatation device.
    Keep reading Show less

    An ancient device too advanced to be real gives up its secrets at last

    Researchers present what they’ve learned now that they can read the tiny text inside the Antikythera mechanism.

    Exploded view of Antikythera mechanism (Peulle/Wikimedia)
    Surprising Science

    Though it it seemed to be just a corroded lump of some sort when it was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece near Antikythera in 1900, in 1902 archaeologist Valerios Stais, looking at the gear embedded in it, guessed that what we now call the “Antikythera mechanism" was some kind of astronomy-based clock. He was in the minority—most agreed that something so sophisticated must have entered the wreck long after its other 2,000-year-old artifacts. Nothing like it was believed to have existed until 1,500 years later.

    Keep reading Show less

    Hyper-innovation: COVID-19 will forever change the way we teach kids

    The institutional barriers that have often held creative teaching back are being knocked down by the coronavirus era.

    Future of Learning
    • Long-held structures in the education system, like classroom confines and schedules, have held back innovation for a long time, says education leader Richard Culatta.
    • In the coronavirus era, we have been able to shake some of those rigid structures loose, making way for creativity and, ultimately, a more open mindset.
    • When creativity and technology combine, learning can become so much more than delivering content to a student. Culatta gives two stunning examples: one of a biotech class, and another involving a student discovering a star.
    Keep reading Show less

    Algorithms associating appearance and criminality have a dark past

    We'd like to think that judging people's worth based on the shape of their head is a practice that's behind us.

    PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP via Getty Images
    Culture & Religion

    'Phrenology' has an old-fashioned ring to it. It sounds like it belongs in a history book, filed somewhere between bloodletting and velocipedes.

    Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…