Research has shown that babies start learning sounds before birth adding a new aspect into the discussion on the benefits of raising children bilingually.
Thanks to the constant exposure to their mother’s voice, research suggests that newborn babies can distinguish between their mother’s native tongue and other languages. Cumulatively, the languages of the world consist of approximately 800 sounds. As Dr Naja Ferjan Ramirez explains “At birth, the baby brain has an unusual gift: it can tell the difference between all 800 sounds. This means that at this stage infants can learn any language that they’re exposed to. Gradually babies figure out which sounds they are hearing the most.” Her study considered two 11 month old children and how they responded to sounds in two languages. The findings showed that those speaking one language could identify the sounds of just one language whilst children who were growing up bilingually could identify sounds in two languages.
This process of identifying sounds leads on to acquiring vocabulary and beginning to speak. Often bilingual children will begin to speak later than their monolingual counterparts, they may also appear to have a smaller vocabulary due to acquiring the vocabulary of two languages simultaneously. Some also suggest that bilingual children often confuse the two languages they are learning. However, experts believe this is a completely normal part of language development in children. In fact, it is believed that this switching between languages is a key part of the increased cognitive development referred to as the “bilingual advantage”.
Some of the advantages to being bilingual include the ability to change focus, switch from one task to another and problem-solving. Of course there is also the greater understanding of language in general that comes with being bilingual, making the acquisition of subsequent languages easier. It is also believed to prevent some of the cognitive issues related to aging e.g. Alzheimers.
Dr Naja Ferjan Ramirez concludes “it’s best to start at an early age, before (a child) even starts speaking (their) first language. It won’t confuse your child, and it could even give (them) a boost in other forms of cognition.”