Babies exposed to two languages show better memory and learning ability: Study

A new study of six-month-old infants has discovered that babies exposed to two languages may have better memory and information processing skills than those only exposed to one. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
A new study of six-month-old infants has discovered that babies exposed to two languages may have better memory and information processing skills than those only exposed to one. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Babies exposed to two languages may have better memory than their monolingual peers, and can also process information faster, a new study of six-month-old infants here has discovered.

They appear to be quicker in absorbing information and get "bored" of familiar images faster, the study of 114 infants found. Half of the infants lived in a environment exposed to a second language - Chinese, Malay or Tamil - at least 25 per cent of the time. The monolingual babies had at least 90 per cent exposure to English.

The study, which is the first of its kind to look at the effects of bilingualism in infants at such a young age, is part of a long-term project known as Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (Gusto), which started in 2009. It is a partnership between the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Singapore Institute for Clinical Studies, KK Women's and Children's Hospital and the National University Health System.

The experiment consisted of two tasks that tracked the babies' eye movements. They were first shown an image of a bear or a wolf. Then they were given the same two images side by side, one of which would be new to them.

In the first exercise, the bilingual infants stared at the picture for a shorter period of time than the monolingual babies, before looking elsewhere. In the second task, the bilingual infants paid more attention to the new image than the monolingual ones, who spent an equal amount of time on both.

Associate Professor Leher Singh, the lead author of the study which was published in journal Child Development in July said the findings suggested that bilingual infants "take in information very rapidly, getting bored of the same image faster".

"They also have better memory and can better recognise images," added the National University of Singapore psychology professor.

"As adults, learning a second language can be painstaking and laborious. We sometimes project that difficulty onto our young babies, imagining a state of enormous confusion as two languages jostle for space in their little heads. However, a large number of studies have shown us that babies are uniquely well-positioned to take on the challenges of bilingual acquisition and in fact, may benefit from this journey."