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Learning multiple languages develops child's linguistic ability

21 February 2012

Infants aged between 18 and 30 months can coordinate different sets of rules when learning different languages

A study on more than 100 children by NUS Assoc Prof Leher Singh found that infants aged between 18 and 30 months can coordinate different sets of rules when learning different languages. Conducted from March to December 2011, the study was the first of its kind in Singapore.

Explaining the rationale for the study, Assoc Prof Singh said that most previous research on early language development has been done with monolinguals. However, most of the world is multilingual.

"The small amount of research conducted on multilinguals suggests that pathways to language are different between monolingual and bilingual infants and toddlers. I was motivated to find out how language acquisition progresses in multilinguals and to what extent their trajectory compares with that of monolinguals," said Assoc Prof Singh who is from the Department of Psychology.

Examining the toddlers' eye movement patterns in a word learning task at the Infant Language Centre at NUS, the research team found that infants aged 18 months, who are monolingual English learners or English-Mandarin bilinguals, can differentiate words when they are different in vowels and tones in the language(s) that they are learning.

At the age of 24 months, English learners are able to identify that when the vowels change, the meaning of the words also change. In addition to vowel change, English-Mandarin learners also take note of tone changes to identify change in meanings in Mandarin words.

When the young respondents reach 30 months, it was found that they can translate between English and Mandarin within a very short time mostly from their dominant language to their non-dominant language.

The study also showed that for children aged between 18 and 24 months who learn more than two languages, their capacity for intellectual reasoning in a non-linguistic set of tasks is higher than that of the monolinguals and bilinguals.

On the research challenges, Assoc Prof Singh said: "Toddlers have a very short attention span and can be moody, distracted or tired. All these factors can obscure the impression we (researchers) form of their abilities. Tasks have to be short enough to maintain attention yet long enough to have repeated trials in case some trials were missed by the participant. Tasks also have to be entertaining so that toddlers' attention can be captured throughout the session."

Moving forward, the investigators will be studying cognitive abilities and are recruiting some 200 children aged two to four years, who are monolinguals, bilinguals and trilinguals. The team will also be comparing English-Mandarin learners on how sophisticated their knowledge of tone is. Furthermore, the NUS group will look into how connected vocabularies are within bilingual learners and what determines their ability to access their second language.