Bilingual Babies and Effect on Attention


I was born in a bilingual household although my family in Puerto Rico spoke predominantly Spanish. I was also taught in school how to speak and write English, which I found useful after I moved to the United States. Being bilingual has given me the advantage in communication with people from different countries without difficulties in transitioning languages and has made it easier for me to adapt to different cultures and make new friends. Currently, my girlfriend and I have been thinking about our possible future. Like most people that fall in love, we talked about marriage and possibly having kids. We came to an interesting question that most bilingual couples have asked before… should we raise our kids speaking English or both Spanish and English? Would it negatively affect the child if we teach him or her two languages at the same time? Would they even benefit from learning Spanish knowing that the United States people mostly speak English? All of these intriguing questions have been asked before, and interestingly a new finding has shown that raising babies bilingually can be beneficial.

Kyle J. Comishen, Ellen Bialystok, and Scott A. Adler published a paper in Developmental Science about how bilingualism affects selective attention and strategy among babies by measuring eye movements. A sample of infants was divided into two groups, infants that were exposed to a monolingual environment (only one language) and infants that were exposed to a bilingual environment (two languages). Two studies were done in which the babies were put in a crib with a camera that recorded eye movement and a screen which displayed images. In the first study both the bilingual and monolingual exposed babies were shown pictures in the center of the screen showing different colors that predicted if another image was going to pop out on the left or right of the screen. The second study both groups were exposed to the same pattern, but the pattern should change halfway through the session.

The results show that there wasn’t any difference between the babies that were exposed to one language and babies that were exposed two languages in the first study, but bilingually expose infants on the second study performed better than monolingually exposed infants. The researchers explain that the experience of paying attention to a complex environment where babies have to process and contrast two languages at the same time could be responsible why babies exposed to a bilingual environment have greater attention control than babies in the non-bilingual environment. Bialystok, the co-senior author of the study, explains why these results are so exciting and important, “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.”

I am now even more confident raising my future child speaking both Spanish and English based on these findings and other related research. It has been shown that raising a kid in a bilingual environment does not negatively affect the child and can be beneficial. Another interesting question relating to child-development is how would a baby be affected in an environment with two different religious beliefs? How about babies that are exposed to more than two languages or different cultures? Either way, I hope you all find it helpful that exposing your child to two different languages would not put your baby in a disadvantage.

2 thoughts on “Bilingual Babies and Effect on Attention

  1. tanjina

    This was very interesting to read. I couldn’t agree more about how helpful it is to expose children to different languages. I am fluent in 5 languages and I always grew up thinking how pointless that seemed. However, looking at it now as an adult I am so glad I can experience the world with different sounds. Being multilingual is not only beneficial when it comes to speaking to other people and understanding different environments, but it also gives the opportunity to be able to store things in your mind differently. For example, sometimes I realize certain words in English can’t emphasize something else strongly enough. Knowing another language helps me be able to think about things differently just through the different words.

    1. psychicdro34 Post author

      That is amazing that you are fluent in 5 languages! Was there one them that was particularly more difficult than the others? I agree that being multilingual is beneficial in storing information. I had experiences where learning vocabulary words were easier for me because of the similar conjugations to the Spanish word, for example, sport and deporte or initials and iniciales. Because the words sound the same or have the same root, I can guess that they both have the same meaning. This made it easier for me to learn English and it encourages me to learn new languages like Latin or German.

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