The brain is a remarkable organ. It develops, adapts, learns, and re-learns, even after being injured. Language fuels our brains, frames our thoughts and makes complex communication possible. Language is an essential component of how the brain works throughout life, but just like the brain itself, we don’t have a full picture of how language works its magic on those neural pathways, but studying bilingual infants might help.
David J. Lewkowicz, developmental psychologist and professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern University, studied and compared both monolingual and bilingual infants. His research shows that infants learning more than one language do more lip-reading than infants learning a single language: a key difference that makes them smarter and more susceptible to learning.
In the study, bilingual and monolingual infants were observed watching a video of a woman speaking in Spanish or Catalan. The infants were learning one or both of these languages. Lewkowicz and his collaborators found that bilingual infants focused their attention on the mouth at an earlier age and for a longer period of time than monolingual infants. “This suggests that bilingual infants pick up on salient audiovisual speech cues more than their monolingual peers to help them distinguish between the two languages they are learning simultaneously,” he said.
Lewkowicz said the findings have important implications for understanding how infants acquire speech and language and shed light on how bilingual infants—despite their neural and behavioral immaturity—manage to learn two different languages as easily as monolingual infants learn one language. The findings, he said, could also play a role in treating and diagnosing children with communicative and learning disorders, like autism. Also, the brain, like any muscle, likes to exercise. Being fluent in two or more languages is one of the best ways to keep it fit and keep degenerative disorders like dementia at bay.
Lewkowicz noted that his team’s research offers insight into what kinds of information are to be exposed to children in order to help them acquire two languages more effectively. Babies go through an intense period of learning in the first year. “Exposure to multiple languages in infancy prevents perceptual narrowing, and it is now clear that one way in which bilingual infants manage to accomplish their task is by taking maximum advantage of both audible and visible speech whenever they interact with their social partners,” he said.