PhotoFor parents of young infants, managing attention can be a difficult task, especially when the children are too young to start speaking.

Now, researchers from York University in Canada found that infants exposed to more than one language at home showed stronger attention skills than infants who heard just one language at home.

“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,” said researcher Ellen 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 cognition.”

Gauging infants’ attention

Half of the infants involved in the study came from bilingual households and the other half came from single-language households. The researchers measured the participants’ eye movements over the course of two different studies to determine their attention levels.

Both of the studies began the same way: the babies were lying down in a crib and were shown images that appeared from different areas of the screen.

In the first study, the researchers established a pattern with the way the images appeared on the screen that the infants would be able to follow with their eyes. However, the researchers got rid of the expected pattern for the second study as a means of testing the infants’ attention skills.

The researchers found that the children from bilingual homes were more likely to learn the new rules and anticipate what direction the images would come from..

“Infants only know which way to look if they can discriminate between the two pictures that appear in the center,” said researcher Scott 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 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.”

The researchers were particularly impressed with these findings because they show the advanced cognitive functioning and attention skills of infants who are pre-speech.

“What is so groundbreaking about these results, is that they look at infants who are not bilingual yet and who are only hearing the bilingual environment,” said Adler “This is what’s having the impact on cognitive performance.”


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