Bilingualism Starts from the Womb

September 27, 2013 by totalityservices

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Research has shown that bilingual people have brains that are able to deal with ambiguities faster, are able to distinguish sounds even against a noisy backdrop faster, and resolve conflicts or problems quicker. Studies have also shown that bilingual brains remain ‘sharper’ for longer and can resist diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia for longer. So, starting as soon as possible in learning a language can only be a good thing. It appears we can even start whilst in our mother’s womb!

It seems being bilingual has many ‘medical’ benefits in addition to the social and cultural advantages learning another language entails. Many of us are not lucky enough to be born into a bilingual environment, and so have to work hard at school and studies later in life in order to become fluent. But, many do have the opportunity to speak more than one language at home, and thus become bilingual without even trying!

We are all born without any ‘pre-programmed’ ability to speak a particular language. We could be born anywhere in the world and so have the ability to learn the language we are surrounded by from birth. Babies and young children’s brains are like sponges, absorbing linguistic knowledge, sounds and vocabulary without actively learning as many adult second language learners would.

Research has been done into monolingual and bilingual babies using a method known as ‘high-amplitude sucking-preference procedure’ – whereby a baby is more likely to suck harder/increase sucking if they are interested or familiar with the aural stimulus. For example, English monolingual babies are most likely to be interested in English stimuli, whereas bilingual English/Chinese would be interested in both languages (increased sucking for stimuli in both). But, going beyond this research it seems that babies could start their path to bilingualism before even leaving the womb.

Pregnant women are encouraged to play (classical) music to their growing babies as this is supposed to encourage intelligence, so it should come as no surprise that babies (in the third trimester) can hear other sounds, in particular the mother’s voice. The unborn foetus becomes familiar with the sounds of the parents’ native language(s). Tests conducted by Finnish scientists on babies brain waves to see whether they reacted differently to familiar and unfamiliar sounds.

Neuroscientist Eino Partanen from the University of Helsinki leading the research explains: “Once we learn a sound, if it’s repeated to us often enough, we form a memory of it, which is activated when we hear the sound again. This memory speeds up recognition of sounds in the learner’s native language and can be detected as a pattern of brain waves, even in a sleeping baby.” As such a group of pregnant women were given a recording to play repeatedly throughout their last few months of pregnancy. A made up word ‘tatata’ was included in the recording several times with musical intervals.

Once born, the babies were tested and their brains showed they recognised this made-up word and the variations of it from the recording, whilst a control group of babies who had not heard the recording did not. Brain signals were strongest from the babies whose mothers had played the recording most frequently. The scientists thus suggested that language learning really can begin in the womb. Though there is no evidence that in-utero learning has any effect on language learning or ability later on in life it is, nevertheless, encouraging and Partanen suggests this could lead to research into treatments for children at risk of developing dyslexia or auditory processing disorders.

So, my advice to any expectant mothers reading this? If you speak a second language, get started introducing your baby to this language as early as possible. They will be eternally grateful for the gift of bilingualism for the rest of their lives!


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