Research from the University of Washington indicates that bilingualism not only affects early language skills, but cognitive development as well. While scientists have long known the neural benefits of bilingualism for adults, this is the first study of its kind to observe its effects on infants.
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The team, led by Naja Ferjan Ramírez, utilized magnetoencephalography (MEG) technology to observe the neural activity in 11-month-old research participants. MEG is a cutting-edge method of observing the human brain, capable of measuring signals given off by active nerve cells. It is precise enough to pinpoint the time and location of this type of neural activity.
Sixteen babies were observed for the study, eight from English-only homes and eight from homes that spoke both English and Spanish. Ramírez' team also made sure the participants were varied along certain demographic factors, including socioeconomic background. Each infant wore an MEG helmet and listened to an 18-minute stream of sounds ("Da's" and "Ta's"). Some of these sounds were specific to Spanish, some to English, and some were shared by both.
The results showed differences in activity in executive function (problem-solving, shifting attention, e.g.), the prefrontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex. The researchers saw considerably stronger responses to the speech sounds in babies raised in a bilingual house.
The study underscores that, even at a very young age, there's a host of cognitive function and development at work--potentially much more than we currently know.