Bilingual Language Learning Study

Baby with EEG cap

Benefits to Exposing Children to More Than One Language in Their First Year of Life

Redlands, CA (August 29, 2011) — Children are like sponges at learning a second language and that ability can be developed before they begin to walk.

The results from the longitudinal study “Bilingual language learning: An ERP study relating early brain responses to speech, language input, and later word production” are the product of exploring Spanish-English bilingual children and the relationships among early brain measures of phonetic discrimination in both languages, degree of exposure to each language in the home, and children’s later bilingual word production abilities.

Barbara Conboy, Assistant Professor in Communicative Disorders in the Department of Communicative Disorders at the University of Redlands and co-author of the study hopes the findings are encouraging news for parents in a bilingual household.

The study, published online on August 17 in the Journal of Phonetics, is the first to measure brain activity in early infancy and relate it to language exposure and speaking ability.

“When the brain is exposed to two languages rather than only one, the most adaptive response is to stay open longer before showing the perceptual narrowing that monolingual infants typically show at the end of the first year of life,” said Adrian Garcia-Sierra, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

The National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Center Program funded the grant for this multi-institutional study.

Co-authors of this study were Maritza Rivera-Gaxiola, formerly a University of Washington research scientist; Cherie Percaccio, a postdoctoral researcher and Lindsay Klarman, a research technician at University of Washington; Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences; and Harriett Romo director, and Sophia Ortiz, assistant director of the Child &Adolescent Policy Research Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

In addition, Conboy was the lead researcher on another recent study “Impact of second-language experience in infancy: brain measures of #rst- and second-language speech perception” published in the journal Developmental Science, a study on a group of infants from monolingual English-speaking homes who were exposed to Spanish in a laboratory setting. According to Conboy, “One interesting thing about that study was that we showed that learning a second language did not result in any detriment to the babies' English. In fact, over the two month period from pre-test to post-test, the babies' brains became more efficient at processing English!”

The neat thing about these two studies is that, together, they show that infants' brains have a lot of plasticity. Children can learn two languages, and their brains adapt to that learning situation. “Parents don't need to worry about their children becoming ‘confused’ or ‘delayed’ because of the demands of dual language learning. Rather, parents should be excited about the increased opportunities their children will have as a result of knowing more than one language,” added Conboy.

At the undergraduate level the University of Redlands’ Department of Communicative Disorders offers basic courses in the Communication Sciences and Disorders. The department also offers a travel May term course to Guatemala, and other coursework to prepare students to work with Spanish-speaking children and also to enhance students' understanding of cultural differences in language socialization and educational practices. At the graduate level, the department provides specialized training in speech-language pathology. Students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels participate in research on early bilingual development, speech and language disorders in children and adults, hearing loss, and other topics.
For more information on the study and interview requests, contact Barbara Conboy, Assistant Professor in Communicative Disorders at the University of Redlands at (909)-748-8073 or

Media Contact: Patricia Zurita, 909-908-355, 909-527-4011,  

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