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Singapore study finds bilingual babies may be brighter

Six-month-old infants spoken to in two languages show better learning and memory than infants exposed to one language, according to a study conducted by SICS, KKH and NUH.

SINGAPORE: Babies exposed to two languages display better learning and memory skills than those who are exposed to one language, a new study in Singapore has found.

The study, believed to be the first of its kind, involved 114 six-month-old infants. Among them, about half were exposed to two languages from the time they were born.

The study found that bilingual babies recognised familiar images faster and paid more attention to novel images than those brought up in monolingual homes. The findings are not specific to a particular language.

The study, released on Tuesday (Sep 2), is part of a long-term birth cohort study of Singaporean mothers and their offspring, known as Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (Gusto). It was jointly undertaken by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Singapore Institute for Clinical Studies (SICS), KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) and the National University Hospital (NUH).

Infants were shown a coloured image of either a bear or a wolf. For half the group, the bear was made to become the “familiar” image while the wolf was the “novel” one, and vice versa for the rest of the group. The study showed that bilingual babies got bored of familiar images faster than monolingual babies, and stared for longer periods of time at the novel image.

Past studies have shown that babies who rapidly get bored with a familiar image demonstrated higher cognition and language ability later on as children, according to a joint media release issued by SICS, KKH, NUH, the National University Health System and the National University of Singapore (NUS). A preference for novelty is also linked with higher IQs and better scores in vocabulary tests during pre-school and school-going years.


An infant in a bilingual home encounters more novel linguistic information than its monolingual peers, and has to learn to discern between the two languages it is hearing, the release said. 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, it added.

Associate Professor Leher Singh, the lead author of the study, who is from the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore, said: “Parents of young babies often second guess early bilingual exposure because babies seem quite limited in their language abilities to our eyes, and so we wonder sometimes if they will get confused by having two languages. So the research shows that they may benefit from having two languages early in life, and we know from other research that infants do not actually get confused."

Assoc Prof Singh added: “As adults, learning a second language can be painstaking and laborious. We sometimes project that difficulty onto our young babies, imagining a state of enormous confusion as two languages jostle for space in their little heads. 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.”

The children were first tested in 2011 when they were six months old, and they will continue to be tested until they turn nine.


But in Singapore, even babies who are from monolingual families do not stay monolingual for too long. More than half of the 54 babies from the control group of monolinguals had also become bilingual when they turned two.

At some point, the control group of monolingual children will fall below a critical mass and become too small. But by then, they would be old enough to take standardised tests, and Assoc Prof Singh said they can then be compared to monolingual children from other countries like the US.

As for those children who became bilingual between six and 18 months, the team also hopes to compare them with the first group who were bilingual from birth, to see if gaining a second language earlier gives them any advantage.

(Photo: A child going through the visual habituation test in the Gusto study)

(Photo: Facial imitation test on the day of birth, recorded on video for neurocognitive analysis)

(Photo: A 6-month-old baby fitted with EEG net cap for tests at the SICS Neurodevelopment Research Centre)

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