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Babies in bilingual homes show better learning, memory skills: Study

SINGAPORE — Being brought up in an environment where two languages are spoken has advantages — these babies have been found to show better learning and memory skills, said a study.

A 6-month old GUSTO baby fitted with EEG net cap for tests in SICS Neurodevelopment Research Center. Photo: GUSTO

A 6-month old GUSTO baby fitted with EEG net cap for tests in SICS Neurodevelopment Research Center. Photo: GUSTO

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SINGAPORE — Being brought up in an environment where two languages are spoken has advantages — these babies have been found to show better learning and memory skills, said a study.

The study, which tracked 114 Chinese, Malay and Indian babies as part of a larger long-term study called GUSTO, found that six-month-old bilingual infants recognised familiar images faster than those brought up in monolingual homes. They also paid more attention to novel images compared with monolingual infants.

Previous studies have shown that babies quicker to become familiar, and subsequently, bored of a picture, perform better in the areas of cognition and language as children. Studies have also shown that a preference for novelty is linked to improved performance in IQ and vocabulary tests during pre-school and school-going years.

A bilingual baby is learning two languages while at the same time learning to tell the difference between them. “It is possible that since learning two languages at once requires more information-processing efficiency, the infants have a chance to rise to this challenge by developing skills to cope with it,” the researchers theorised.

For this study, bilingual babies were defined as having at least 25 per cent exposure to a second language and monolingual babies were defined as having at least 90 per cent exposure to a first language, namely English. There were no differences in the mothers’ education and income or household income between the monolingual and bilingual groups.

The findings were shared in a joint statement issued today (Sept 2) by the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR), the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, the National University Health System and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH). The findings were also published online in scientific journal Child Development on July 30.

NUS Associate Professor Leher Singh, who is lead author of the study, said: “As adults, learning a second language can be painstaking and laborious ... However, a large number of studies have shown us that babies are uniquely well positioned to take on the challenges of bilingual acquisition and in fact, may benefit from this journey.”

GUSTO, which stands for Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes, is a long-term study of pregnant Singaporean mothers and their offspring from birth until nine years of age. A joint effort by A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, KKH and National University Hospital, it was launched in 2009, and aims to find out how environmental factors affect the development of diseases such as diabetes.

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