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Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, co-directors of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences in the US, at the parents' conference. Photos: Edward Wong

It's never too early for children to learn a second language, say experts

It's never too early for infants to begin learning a second language as it can greatly improve cognitive skills later in life, visiting experts tell Mabel Sieh


In case parents are worried that it might be too taxing for children to learn more than one language while they are young, studies by American brain development experts Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl show otherwise.

In fact, the husband and wife team, who are co-directors of the Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, say learning a second language is beneficial for babies and toddlers.

Bilingual brains show a higher level of cognitive and executive function
Patricia Kuhl 

Professors Meltzoff and Kuhl were in town last month to speak at a parents' conference hosted by Infants, Toddlers and Twos, an early childhood development centre which applied their findings in its programmes.

Through magneto-encephalography, a procedure that uses sensors to form images of magnetic fields produced within the brain, the researchers have been able to track how an infants' neurons are activated while listening to speech and non-speech signals.

Kuhl cited a study which looked at how infants from age six to eight months in Japan and the US acquire languages by "taking statistics" on the sounds they hear from their mothers. She says babies are already counting the number of sounds they hear, "like a little computer".

Infants are particularly intrigued by "parentese", which she defines as communication from adults using actual words rather than sounds or nonsensical words adopted in baby talk.

"Parentese has the right tone of voice: it is high-pitched, with elongated vowels and consonants, and short and simple words or phrases, and accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions," Kuhl says.

"When babies hear parentese, they are 'mapping' the sounds they're hearing in their brain. The more parentese and one-on-one interaction for them, the more their language development zooms forward."

Testing a group of children when they were infants and again at the age of five, the two researchers found that those learning more than one language had better literacy and reading skills.

That shows "being able to distinguish sounds [in more than one language] is a building block for their linguistic ability and ability to read", Kuhl says. "The bilingual brains show more flexibility and a higher level of cognitive and executive function because they have to switch back and forth in two languages. These children are also more creative in solving problems."

In their first year, Kuhl says, babies are "citizens of the world - they can discriminate all the sounds of all the languages in the world before their first birthdays".

But there is a critical period when the babies become culture-bound listeners like adults who have learned to tune into the sounds they hear most often - their mother tongue.

Meltzoff, whose studies focus on how non-academic skills can predict success in life, finds that children begin to imitate everything they hear and see from birth: "Babies are born learners," he says.

But the first 2,000 days of a child's life is crucial because what he or she learns during this golden period often sets the foundation for success in school and beyond.

"Children learn the most in their first 2,000 days than any other six-year period in their life," Meltzoff says. "Research tells us that we have a sensitive period between birth and six years of age when language is learned effortlessly."

Human interaction, however, seems to be a significant factor for young learners being able to pick up a foreign language successfully.

In another study, they tested a group of nine-month-old American babies who had never been exposed to another language by giving them 12 sessions of Chinese through natural interaction with a native speaker. They then compared them with another group of infants learning the same information via television or audio tapes.

The result showed that the babies picked up Chinese sounds and words rapidly when lessons were in person. On the other hand, there was no learning when the lessons were presented by a teacher via television or audiotapes.

"It takes a human being for babies to learn a language. The social brain is controlling when they are taking the statistics," says Kuhl. "When we talk face to face, we are reacting to each other non-verbally in real time, through our eyes, body gestures, tones, and we adjust our interaction accordingly.

"We believe babies are as sensitive to these signals as adults, even if they don't have the language yet."

At a time when families and educators are increasingly turning to digital devices in learning, the researchers find language is best absorbed in a natural environment - through play and social exchange, not through flash cards.

"The best 'brain food' we can provide our children is to describe the actions around the household by using real three-dimensional objects," Meltzoff says. "[Like you'd say to a baby]: 'I'm going to give you this glass of water', while holding a glass of water in front of him or her, not showing him a picture of it.

"When the brain is not having any agenda, it opens up and connects best. That's why free thought and free play is really important for children and also for adults," Kuhl says. "They help to develop our brain healthily and creatively."

Apart from imitating sounds, children also intimate how adults interact and treat each other so it is important to surround them with good role models.

"Their little brain is sculpted from observation. They're absorbing [everything] from their social environment every day," Meltzoff says. "That's why we need to care about who the caretaker is, and who the preschool and first grade teacher is."

Among scientists invited to the White House to present their findings on brain and cognitive development, the pair took pains on a recent visit to highlight the benefits of bilingualism to children.

"Americans are making a mistake by thinking that bilingualism might be bad for young children and therefore they should only speak English. But our research has shown bilingualism is good for them," Meltzoff says.

Kuhl adds: "Everything we know suggests that bilingualism is not only good for the brain but also good for the society. It allows you to think about the perspective of other people.

"Learning a foreign language helps you frame your thoughts through another culture and understand other people better."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Born learners