Benefits of Bilingualism | Language Recognition Skills

It stands to reason that bilingualism strengthens the language centers in the brain. That shouldn’t be a surprise!

But there are some interesting — and useful — side effects. These develop passively as a result of being exposed to multiple languages. They are not instructed skills, but rather emerge as a natural result of brain development.

One unique trait of bilinguals is the ability to recognize different languages, even if the bilingual is not fluent in them. And, startlingly, scientists have found that this ability starts long before verbal skills develop — even infants in bilingual households possess it!


The Study

Prof. Werker of the University of British Columbia produced several studies demonstrating that all infants can, at an early age, distinguish between different languages spoken near them.

The ability persists in infants from bilingual households as they age, but vanishes in monolingual children.

By eight months of age, monolingual children have lost the ability to distinguish one spoken language from another.

In his most recent study (Werker & Sebastian-Galles, 2013), Werker found that children raised in bilingual households where both Spanish and Catalan — two closely related

Romance languages — were spoken could not only tell those languages apart, but could also distinguish between spoken French and spoken English.

Even more impressively, infants could make the distinction based on nothing but silent videos of faces speaking English and French. The facial cues and lip movements were enough for the infants to recognize distinct languages.

This is not only a fascinating ability, it’s also an important refutation of one of the old myths about bilingualism: that bilingual children will become confused and mix languages up. In fact, the study shows that bilingual children are much better at telling languages apart than adults — including the ones who think they know better.

The Practical Results

This may not seem like a very useful skill at first blush. Being able to recognize when people are using different languages even if you don’t speak their languages is a cool party trick, but without fluency it doesn’t serve much practical purpose.

However, it does demonstrate “perceptual vigilance,” which basically means attention to detail.

Children who grow up with a strong awareness of the visual and auditory cues that distinguish one language from another are likely to have similarly strong skills in interpreting facial expressions, tone of voice, and other important social cues.

Basically, it strengthens observational techniques that your child will use for socializing. As a result, bilinguals tend to be able to adapt to new situations and get along with varied kinds of individuals more easily than their monolingual counterparts.

The skill also, as mentioned above, serves as an important proof that bilingually raised children are not likely to confuse languages or mistake words from one language for words from another. The opposite is true: lifetime bilinguals have a much stronger awareness of the distinction between different languages than monolinguals.