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SHOLEH: Bilingual baby babble won’t baffle

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| October 6, 2022 1:00 AM

When asked what I wanted the grandkids to call me, I didn’t hesitate: Maman.

There is no other Maman in the family. Grammas, Nanas and Grannies abound, but I’m the only Maman. I’m also the only one who babbles at the grandbabies in other languages, every chance I get. If any of it takes, we’ll share something all our own.

My Maman did the same for me, believing whether or not I actually became fluent in anything, it would help my brain develop. Turns out, she was right.

October is Bilingual Child Month.

You’ve probably read that exposing children to other languages in the early years (even if they forget) makes it easier to learn them as adults by expanding the brain’s facility to process language generally. What’s less known is that dozens of studies in the National Library of Medicine’s collection indicate second-language learning during childhood also boosts problem-solving, critical-thinking and listening skills, as well as improving memory, concentration and multitasking.

Knowing more than one language also expands understanding of cultures and perspectives other than our own.

And contrary to popular myth, being raised bilingual or with second-language exposure during infancy doesn’t confuse children, cause harm or delay their learning of the primary language. That’s easily confirmed in the scores of countries where childhood bilingualism is more common.

It’s fun, and often helpful, to have more than one word for things. I always felt richer for it and somehow I knew what language to speak with which person even when I was small. Science backs that up.

Think about languages you’ve heard. Even when you don’t know the vocabulary, it’s as if each language has its own melody, a pattern which makes it recognizable even for toddlers, studies have found. While I’ve forgotten a lot, I still find it easy to pick up phrases in other languages and understand speakers when I travel. Folks who aren’t bilingual tend to find it more difficult to imprint new languages.

If a bilingual child is part of your circle, “Bilingualism in the early years: What the science says,” published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Learn Landscape, might be useful. Relying on research findings from a variety of fields the authors answer common questions about bilingual kids:

1) Are bilingual children confused? First, what exactly would “confusion” look like? One misunderstood behavior is when bilingual children (or adults) mix words from two languages in the same sentence. But this “code mixing” is a normal part of bilingualism. Is this really so different than switching terminology in a sentence, or the synonyms people choose — you say road, I say street?

Bilingual children code mix because that’s what they hear: both languages. It doesn’t result in lasting confusion; consider babies who are taught sign language and who both say “eat” and sign it.

With younger children, some words are easier to pronounce, or more quickly retrieved because they were learned earlier, like a path of least resistance. Neither seems to confuse the child. Research demonstrated even 2-year-olds were able to modulate their language choices to match the one used by whoever is speaking with them. (However, whether or not the parents’ code mixing affects the way a child learns language requires further study.)

Remember the melody? Other studies showed infants are sensitive to sound differences and can readily distinguish two languages without evidence of confusion. That’s true even without sound; recent research indicates the average 4-month-old can distinguish silent talking faces speaking different languages, although this ability diminishes without exposure. By 8 months, only bilingual babies can still do that, while monolinguals stop noticing such subtle variations in facial movements. Instead of being confused, such research suggests bilingual infants are more aware of language distinctions.

Finally, the idea that in a bilingual household each parent should stick to one language to avoid confusion or intellectual fatigue has proved a fallacy in empirical studies. Children raised either way had no trouble distinguishing each language.

2) Does bilingualism make children smarter?

Depends on what you mean by smart. Advantaged may be a better word. Beyond the obvious practical benefits of being multilingual, several studies suggest social advantages. Bilingual preschoolers showed somewhat better skill than monolinguals in understanding others’ perspectives, thoughts, desires and intentions.

Bilingual familiarity may also have cognitive advantages, according to several studies between 2009-2012. Bilingual infants and children performed a little better on tasks involving switching activities and showed some cognitive and memory advantages.

3) Is earlier better?

Popular thought once suggested a critical period for language acquisition, that some cutoff age existed when language learning wouldn’t “take” as well. Scientists disagree about whether that’s true. Research does more consistently support the notion that earlier is better, at least in general. Our brains develop learning patterns, so the broader these are and the more paths they take during early development, the more flexible those thinking and learning patterns can become, which increases the brain’s language (and other?) learning capacity.

That certainly doesn’t mean if you want to learn a language at 75 you can’t. Earlier may be easier, but it’s not absolute.

Beyond bilingual nannies and language courses, one increasingly popular tool among new parents is teaching babies sign language. Before babies can speak, they can understand signs, which makes it easier to communicate their needs and certainly counts as a second language. Children’s TV shows, videos and online resources offer a plethora of appealing songs and fun ways for children to learn languages less formally.

And it’s so endearing to hear “I love you” said four different ways. Te amo so much, mon cher grand-fils.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.

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