Baby brains are language sponges. Among all lessons the world offers a tiny child, from gravity’s effect on spoons to how expressive adults can be about picking those spoons up, babies are also doing their best to make sense of everything people around them are saying. This is true even when more than one language is being spoken by the baby’s household, which is how most bilingual people pick up their first and second languages. Beyond the practical upside of being able to speak with a wider range of people in the world, being bilingual has been linked to a number of cognitive benefits. Since not everyone has a chance to grow up in a bilingual household, researchers have been looking at ways to help more children learn more languages.
Fortunately, while the ability to learn a language seems to be part of human genes, the specific language you learn is not. That bit of cultural information can be shared from anyone, and often babies will learn a second language from child care providers, schools, or the local population in general if parents speak a different language at home. There are also programs and classes, even for the very young, to help pick up a second language. As an experiment, a sort of minimal language course was established to help Spanish speakers in Spain learn English, and the results show that full immersion isn’t necessary for a child to make progress.
Learning languages in just one hour a week
The experimental class lasted 18 weeks, but it only met for one hour a week. During that hour, instructors catered to the type of interaction the participating 7- to 33-month-olds would receive at home. This meant that rather than more formal practice and instruction in English, the babies and toddlers were taught with something closer to the baby talk their parents were using at home to teach them Spanish. The idea was that those types of interactions aren’t just fun for the babies, but they’re actually something human brains have evolved to expect in order to learn to speak.
To evaluate the effectiveness of this “parentese” approach, children were outfitted with special vests that recorded their speech, both in the experimental class and a more traditional English class offered by the Madrid school system. Researchers then tallied up how many English words the kids used, and how often they used them. To see what stuck, their English was evaluated again 18 weeks after the instruction ended. The results showed that parentese worked better with these young kids, and their English was stronger at the end of 36 weeks, with those kids having retained around 74 words compared to the 18 words retained by more traditional students. Importantly, this held true even for kids from very different backgrounds— kids’ brains from both higher and lower income neighborhoods responded well to this type of instruction.
This doesn’t necessarily prove that these kids will all speak English fluently in a couple of years, but it does show that learning a second language doesn’t require intense investments of energy. Most likely, it means that the best way to teach a language is to use the tools evolution has created for a baby’s or toddler’s brain during this crucial developmental period when they’re primed to learn.