Bilingualism: Use it or Lose it!

My sister is working on a degree in bilingual education, so I was wondering how that would affect the neuronal pathways.  Language is a complicated since it requires rules of syntax, semantics, grammar that varies among foreign languages. People initially worried that learning two languages from the beginning would be confusing to infants and slow their development process.  Well I read an article that showed bilingual infants not only showed impressive accomplishments in language development, but other higher cognitive functions that involve the prefrontal and frontal cortex.

In this experiment, they did MRIs of 6-12 month old babies (I didn’t even realize that was a possibility) listening to familiar and unfamiliar languages.  All children (monolingual or bilingual) could discriminate between phonetic sounds in multiple languages at 6 months; however, by 10-12 months, monolingual children lost this ability.  Bilingual children, on the other hand, became better at distinguishing the sounds with increasing age.  The “use it or lose it” hypothesis of neuronal systems seems to be applicable for foreign language development, as well!!

Bilingual infants are capable of noticing the differences in lip movements on muted films of different languages.  They can also differentiate the languages by rhythm and develop a much larger vocabulary (whereas past studies indicated they knew about the same number of words, but it was split between the two languages).   They also found that babies prefer the language they heard in utero (which is interesting when we consider abroad adoptions).  Clearly early exposure (even neonatal) has a profound effect on the neuronal wiring that is available and eventually used.

2 thoughts on “Bilingualism: Use it or Lose it!

  1. This is awesome… I too am surprised the babies are in an MRI. That’s a scary experience! has something changed about it? I remember a researcher at Duke who was putting kids in and they had a pretty cool set up with a practice unit so the kids would learn to be still and attend to whatever necessary. Also cool was the machinary decked out like a choo choo train or spaceship. I doubt a 6 month old would be all that engaged by this though… hmmm. Intriguing data nonetheless.


  2. I always find it amazing how researchers are able to develop methods that can study such things. For example, being able to tell what language a baby prefers is an incredible feat. In addition, it is very interesting how this data helps the use it or lose it hypothesis. It is commonly thrown around that the best time to learn is language is when you are in the first few years of your life. This research suggests that learning a new language could best best in the first few months! Very interesting stuff.


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