Babies born into bilingual homes change the focus of their attention more quickly and more frequently than babies in homes where only one language is spoken, according to new research. The study, led by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), used eye-tracking technology to record the gaze of 102 infants carrying out a variety of tasks.

The researchers chose to test babies aged between seven and nine months to rule out any benefits gained from being able to speak a second language, often referred to as the “bilingual advantage”. Instead, the study focused on the effects of growing up hearing two or more languages.

[caption id=“attachment_102500” align=“aligncenter” width=“700”]cognitive bilingual test Experiment 4 consisted of 15 trials. In each trial, two stimuli were presented, one on either side of the screen.
In the first trial, the two stimuli were identical (the leftmost drawing). Over the course of the 15 trials, the stimulus on one side of the screen remained the same, but the stimulus on the other side of the screen changed.
Credit: Dean D’Souza, et al. CC-BY[/caption]

When shown two pictures side by side, infants from bilingual homes shifted attention from one picture to another more frequently than infants from monolingual homes, suggesting these babies were exploring more of their environment.

More Challenging Environment

The study also found that when a new picture appeared on the screen, babies from bilingual homes were 33% faster at redirecting their attention towards the new picture.

“Bilingual environments may be more variable and unpredictable than monolingual environments — and therefore more challenging to learn in. We know that babies can easily acquire multiple languages, so we wanted to investigate how they manage it. Our research suggests that babies in bilingual homes adapt to their more complex environment by seeking out additional information. Scanning their surroundings faster and more frequently might help the infants in a number of ways. For example, redirecting attention from a toy to a speaker’s mouth could help infants to match ambiguous speech sounds with mouth movements,"

said lead author Dr. Dean D’Souza, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at ARU.

The researchers are currently investigating whether faster and more frequent switching in infancy has cascading effects over developmental time, for example affecting behaviour in older children and adults.

There has been much controversy over claims in the literature that bilinguals outperform monolinguals on non-verbal tasks of executive function.

“We could not replicate the finding that only bilingual infants can inhibit a learned behaviour. But we found that infants exposed to bilingual environments switch attention more frequently between two visual stimuli than infants exposed to monolingual environments,"

the authors write in summary.

[1] Dean D’Souza , Daniel Brady , Jennifer X. Haensel and Hana D’Souza. Is mere exposure enough? The effects of bilingual environments on infant cognitive development. Royal Society Open Science, 26 February 2020

For future updates, subscribe via Newsletter here or Twitter