Bilingualism in Babies Starts in the Womb

Bilingualism in Babies Starts in the Womb

Time for that second-language refresher course? A new study claims that hearing two languages regularly during pregnancy could make your baby bilingual by the time he or she is born.

The Scoop

Hearing two languages regularly during pregnancy may make babies bilingual by the time they are born, according to a new joint study from Canadian and French researchers that finds infants born to bilingual mothers exhibit different language preferences than infants born to mothers who speak only one language.

Published online January 29, 2010, in the journal Psychological Science, the study looked at two groups of newborns: babies born to monolingual moms who spoke English only during pregnancy and Tagalog-English bilinguals (moms who regularly spoke both English and Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines). To evaluate language recognition, researchers employed “high-amplitude sucking-preference procedure,” a method that uses fast or vigorous sucking reflexes to indicate an infant’s interest (during feeding or using a pacifier).

In one experiment, newborns heard 10 minutes of speech, with every minute alternating between English and Tagalog. According to researchers, English monolingual infants were more interested in English than Tagalog—babies exhibited increased sucking when they heard English, but not when they heard Tagalog. Babies born to bilingual moms had an equal preference for both English and Tagalog, sucking vigorously when either language was heard.

These results, researchers believe, suggest that prenatal bilingual exposure may affect infants’ language preferences, preparing bilingual babies in utero to listen to and learn about both of their native languages.

Your Pregnancy

You have probably already signed up for childbirth prep classes, but is it time to register for that French or Spanish refresher course, too? While some bilingual moms- and dads-to-be may worry that exposure to two languages during Baby’s early development may be confusing, child language experts tout the benefits of speaking dual languages.

According to Carey Myles, author of Raising Bilingual Children, “Bilingualism has been linked to a variety of positive cognitive benefits, including early reading, improved problem-solving skills, and higher scores on the SATs, including the math section.” Myles also claims that bilingual children have been shown to demonstrate “better listening perception” and that they “recognize earlier than monolingual children do that language is symbolic … and … are more skilled at interpreting and manipulating grammar to communicate clearly.”


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