Language Development & Communication
Listening & Understanding
Core Finding: LD-UND-C04

Babies exposed to bilingual environments can learn different languages more quickly than infants from monolingual environments.


Studies have shown that exposing babies to bilingual environments speeds up their ability to pick up more than one language.

Exposure to the tones in Mandarin at a young age can help in learning other languages. Young children exposed to different lexical tones (the manipulation of a word's pitch contour) in Mandarin can affect an infant's ability to associate words with objects. By incorporating non-native lexical tones into the studies, researchers learned that infants are able to apply their prior knowledge of their own language when learning words in a new language. This suggests that infants are motivated to learn language and will use any potentially relevant information available to them.

Researchers have found that babies’ learning of a first language enhanced and did not hinder their acquisition of a second language. A year-long study involving 72 one-year-old babies was conducted by psychologists at the National University of Singapore (NUS) revealed such.

In the study, bilingual babies were defined as those who were exposed to either English or Mandarin for at least 35% of the time for each language. Findings showed that bilingual babies were more sensitive to changes in tone, which affects the meaning of a word in Mandarin but not in English. The bilingual babies also ignored tone when learning new words in English but responded to tone changes when learning new words in Mandarin. This was an advantage as they were able to differentiate between how tones were used in both Mandarin and English. Having two languages that differ can make the properties of each language more salient to children, and they can benefit from the contrast effect. Learning English will not affect children’s potential to learn Mandarin as learning both languages may strengthen their knowledge of Mandarin.

In another experiment, it was also shown that infants who had exposure to a bilingual background may have advantages when learning a third language. The study conducted two experiments. Experiment 1 compared 18 to 20-month-old monolingual (English) and bilingual (English/Mandarin) infants on their ability to learn words distinguished by click consonants from a Southern African language, Ndebele. Bilingual (English-Mandarin) infants were sensitive to Ndebele click contrasts, but monolingual (English) infants were not. In Experiments 2A and 2B, researchers investigated whether enhanced bilingual sensitivity extended to similar non-linguistic gestures: handclaps and finger snaps. Neither group distinguished words labelled by handclaps and finger snaps. Results suggest that bilingual infants’ sustained openness to non-native phonemic contrasts may facilitate the acquisition of words in other foreign languages.

Bilingualism also provides children with cognitive advantages. Researchers from the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences found that hearing a second language helped infants process information more quickly. 114 monolingual and bilingual infants were compared in a very basic task involving sustained attention at 6 months of age. It was found that bilingual infants demonstrated greater efficiency as well as in improved recognition memory as compared to monolinguals.

Infants who are exposed to more than one language show better ability to focus than infants who are exposed to only one language. This means that exposure to bilingual environments should be a significant factor in the early development of attention in infancy and could set the stage for lifelong cognitive benefits.

Studies among 16-month-old infants have found that even minimal multilingual exposure at an early age may enhance communication skills. Infants who regularly hear multiple languages have an advantage in understanding a speaker’s intended meaning. This understanding facilitates the development of executive function skills generally.

A research study in UK has also found that when babies hear two languages at home, they are more able to switch attention than babies who hear only one language. Researchers from the Anglia Ruskin University in the UK carried out studies on 102 babies who were between 7 to 9 months old. 51 babies were from bilingual homes. Using gaze tracking technology to track how fast babies could switch attention from side-to-side pictures, the researchers found that babies from bilingual homes were able to switch attention to new pictures 33% faster than those from monolingual homes. Researchers suggested that bilingual homes may be more flexible and unpredictable and therefore more challenging to learn in. Hence, this environment may give the children an advantage in future development.