According to new research published in Developmental Science
and carried out at Canada’s York University, babies who hear two languages at home develop advantages in attention.
In the study, infants who were
exposed to more than one language showed better attentional control than
infants who were exposed to only one language. This means that exposure to
bilingual environments should be considered a significant factor in the early
development of attention in infancy, the researchers say, and could set the
stage for lifelong cognitive benefits.
The research was conducted by famed
specialist in the study of bilingualism Ellen Bialystok, distinguished research
professor of psychology and Walter Gordon research chair of Lifespan Cognitive
Development, and Scott Adler, associate professor in York’s Department of
Psychology and the Centre for Vision Research, along with lead author Kyle J.
The researchers conducted two
separate studies in which infants’ eye movements were measured to assess
attention and learning. Half of the infants who were studied were being raised
in monolingual environments while others were being raised in environments in
which they heard two languages spoken approximately half of the time each. The
infants were shown images as they lay in a crib equipped with a camera and
screen, and their eye movements were tracked and recorded as they watched
pictures appear above them, in different areas of the screen. The tracking was
conducted 60 times for each infant.
“By studying infants—a population
that does not yet speak any language—we discovered that the real difference
between monolingual and bilingual individuals later in life is not in the
language itself, but rather, in the attention system used to focus on
language,” claims Bialystok. “This study tells us that from the very earliest
stage of development, the networks that are the basis for developing attention
are forming differently in infants who are being raised in a bilingual
environment. Why is that important? It’s because attention is the basis for all
In the first study, the infants saw
one of two images in the center of the screen followed by another image
appearing on either the left or right side of the screen. The babies learned to
expect that if, for example, a pink and white image appears in the center of
the screen, it would be followed by an attractive target image on the left; If
a blue and yellow image appeared in the center, then the target would appear on
the right. All the infants could learn these rules.
In the second study, which began in
the same way, researchers switched the rule halfway through the experiment.
When they tracked the babies’ eye movements, they found that infants who were
exposed to a bilingual environment were better at learning the new rule and at
anticipating where the target image would appear. This is difficult because
they needed to learn a new association and replace a successful response with a
new contrasting one.
“Infants only know which way to look
if they can discriminate between the two pictures that appear in the center,”
said Adler. “They will eventually anticipate the picture appearing on the
right, for example, by making an eye movement even before that picture appears
on the right. What we found was that the infants who were raised in bilingual
environments were able to do this better after the rule is switched than those
raised in a monolingual environment.”
Anything that comes through the
brain’s processing system interacts with this attentional mechanism, says
Adler. Therefore, language, as well as visual information, can influence the
development of the attentional system.
Researchers say the experience of
attending to a complex environment in which infants simultaneously process and
contrast two languages may account for why infants raised in bilingual
environments have greater attentional control than those raised in monolingual
In previous research, bilingual
children and adults outperformed monolinguals on some cognitive tasks that
require them to switch responses or deal with conflict. The reason for those
differences were thought to follow from the ongoing need for bilinguals to
select which language to speak. This new study pushes back the explanation to a
time before individuals are actively using languages and switching between
“What is so ground-breaking about
these results, is that they look at infants who are not bilingual yet and who
are only hearing the bilingual environment. This is what’s having the impact on
cognitive performance,” remarked Adler.
University’s fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario’s
Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education.