As Eddie Izzard notes in the video above, the English, within our cosy, post-imperialist, monolingual culture, often have trouble coping with the idea of two languages or more jostling about for space in the same head. “No one can live at that speed!” he suggests. And yet, bilingual children seem to cope just fine. In fact, they pick up their dual tongues at the same pace as monolingual children attain theirs, despite having to cope with two sets of grammar and vocabulary. At around 12 months, both groups produce their first words and after another six months, they know around 50.
Italian psychologists Agnes Melinda Kovacs and Jacques Mehler have found that part of their skill lies in being more flexible learners than their monolingual peers. Their exposure to two languages at an early point in their lives trains them to extract patterns from multiple sources of information.
Kovacs and Mehler demonstrated that by sitting a group of year-old infants in front of a computer screen and playing them a three-syllable word. The infants could use the word’s structure to divine where a cuddly toy would appear on the screen – if the first and last syllables were the same (“lo-vu-lo”), it would show up on the right, but if the first and second syllables matched (“lo-lo-vu”), it appeared on the left. By watching where they were looking, the duo could tell if they were successfully predicting the toy’s position.
Success depended on learning two separate linguistic structures over the course of the experiment. The infants had to discern the difference between ‘AAB’ words and ‘ABA’ words and linking them to one of the two possible toy locations. After 36 trials where they got to grips with the concept, Kovacs and Mehler tested the infants with eight different words.
Learning a new language as an adult is no easy task but infants can readily learn two languages without obvious difficulties. Despite being faced with two different vocabularies and sets of grammar, babies pick up both languages at the same speeds as those who learn just one. Far from becoming confused, it seems that babies actually develop superior mental skills from being raised in a bilingual environment.
By testing 38 infants, each just seven months old, Agnes Melinda Kovacs and Jacques Mehler have found that those who are raised in bilingual households have better “executive functions“. This loose term includes a number of higher mental abilities that allow us to control more basic ones, like attention and motor skills, in order to achieve a goal. They help us to plan for the future, focus our attention, and block out instinctive behaviours that would get in the way. Think of them as a form of mental control.
The role of these abilities in learning multiple languages is obvious – they allow us to focus on one language, while preventing the other from interfering. Indeed, children and adults who learn to use two languages tend to develop better executive functions. Now, Kovacs and Mehler have found that even from a very young age, before they can actually speak, children develop stronger executive functions if they grow up to the sound of two mother tongues. They show a degree of mental control that most people their age would struggle to match.
Kovacs and Mehler worked with 14 babies who heard two languages from birth, and 14 who had experienced just one. The babies saw a computer screen with two white squares and heard a short, made-up word. After that, a puppet appeared in one of the squares. There were nine words in total, and each time the puppet appeared in the same place. As the test went on, all the babies started focusing on the correct square more frequently, showing that they had learned to anticipate the puppet’s appearance. That’s a simple task that doesn’t require much in the way of executive function.
The next nine trials used a different puppet that appeared in the other square. The infants’ job was to learn that the link between word and puppet had changed, but only the bilingual ones were good at this. Unlike their monolingual peers, they learned to switch their attention to the other square. To Kovacs and Mehler, this is a sign of superior mental control – they had to override what they had previously learned in order to pick up something new. The monolingual infants, however, behaved as babies their age usually do – they stick with responses that had previously paid off, even if situations change.