Raising bilingual babies

Some of my friends are raising their children bilingual.  One couple of lives in Austria — the father is Austrian, the mother is Czech.  Another lives in Washington DC — the father is American, the mother is German.  The couples speak both languages at home, but they also take their children back to the second-language country for extended summer vacations, and have children’s books, videos, and television programs available.

New research ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html) shows that bilingual children’s brains develop differently from monolingual children’s. The latest news on bilingual babies is this:
… researchers found that at 6 months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were uttered in the language they were used to hearing or in another language not spoken in their homes. By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.

In contrast, the bilingual infants followed a different developmental trajectory. At 6 to 9 months, they did not detect differences in phonetic sounds in either language, but when they were older — 10 to 12 months — they were able to discriminate sounds in both.

“What the study demonstrates is that the variability in bilingual babies’ experience keeps them open,” said Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the study. “They do not show the perceptual narrowing as soon as monolingual babies do. It’s another piece of evidence that what you experience shapes the brain.”

Another researcher found, that “Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function.”
It’s surprising that so little is known about bilingualism when it is so important to every aspect of modern life, but at least they’re learning now.

I must add that I have several acquaintances who spent years as young children speaking a second language and barely remember a thing.  It appears that as well as exposing them at an early age, one can’t forget to take them to visit grandma every summer, and to implant all the social supports to the language they are learning.

Oh, and one more thing – the babies learned nothing from television, even if they watched programs in a second language for hours.  They need human interaction to imprint any language.

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