Do bilingual babies get a head start in life?

Bilingual brain activity is evident in babies at as early as 11 months of age, a new study shows.

Researchers at the University of Washington compared language brain processing in bilingual and monolingual babies at an age when they are just starting to talk.

The study looked as 17 babies from English speaking households and 16 babies from English-Spanish speaking homes.

Using a non-evasive head scan, the scientists examined developmental speech perception as the babies listened to a  stream of sounds, such as “da’s” and “ta’s.”

The babies listened to specific language sounds as well as sounds that were found in both languages.

The infants that came from a monolingual home showed neural sensitivity to one language, while the bilingual babies were sensitive to two languages.

The brain responses were found in the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex, brain areas known to be involved in executive functioning (or in layman’s terms: more complex thinking).

“Our results suggest that before they even start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practice at tasks related to executive function,” said study lead and report author Naja Ferjan Ramírez.

“This suggests that bilingualism shapes not only language development, but also cognitive development more generally,” she said.

Researchers say language development can change over time but the babies responding to two languages could be getting a head start.

“The experience of bilingualism appears to alter not only the scope of language acquisition and use, but also a broader scope of cognitive processing from a very young age onward,” the study said.

If parents want to teach their children to learn more than one language, it’s best to start young, according to the study’s author Naja Ferjan Ramirez.

“It won’t confuse your child, and it could even give her a boost in other forms of cognition,” she told The Conversation.

The study was published in Developmental Science.