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.

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

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!

    U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

    Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

    U.S. Navy ships

    Credit: Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
    • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
    • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
    Keep reading Show less

    The misguided history of female anatomy

    From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.

    Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
    Sex & Relationships
    • The history of medicine and biology often has been embarrassingly wrong when it comes to female anatomy and was surprisingly resistant to progress.
    • Aristotle and the ancient Greeks are much to blame for the mistaken notion of women as cold, passive, and little more than a "mutilated man."
    • Thanks to this dubious science, and the likes of Sigmund Freud, we live today with a legacy that judges women according to antiquated biology and psychology.
    Keep reading Show less

    Why do holidays feel like they're over before they even start?

    People tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly.

    Mind & Brain

    For many people, summer vacation can't come soon enough – especially for the half of Americans who canceled their summer plans last year due to the pandemic.

    Keep reading Show less
    Strange Maps

    Android has won the phone world war

    A global survey shows the majority of countries favor Android over iPhone.

    Quantcast