Infants exposed to multiple languages show enhanced interpersonal skills

Thursday, March 24, 2016
baby in glasses on top of book

Infants exposed to more than one language may be better able than their monolingual counterparts to see a situation from another point of view, according to a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. The study investigated whether a multilingual environment can influence developing communication skills before infants are able to speak.

The researchers conducted an interactive visual communication task with infants ages 14 to 17 months. An adult sat across a table from an infant. Between them were two identical props—one that both could see, and the other visible only to the infant. When the investigator asked for the prop, the infants from multilingual backgrounds were more likely to hand the investigator the prop that both could see, rather than the one that only the infant could see.

"These results showed a level of sophisticated thinking among the infants from multilingual backgrounds," said Layla Esposito, Ph.D., program officer at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which provided funding for the study. "Compared to the monolingual infants, multilingual infants realized that the adult could only see one prop, and they were aware enough to reach for the one that both could see."

The study appears online in Developmental Science. The researchers enrolled 32 infant boys and 32 infant girls divided equally between those exposed to English only and those exposed to more than one language (primarily Spanish and English).

While the infants could see both props, the investigator could only see one and extended a hand across the table with the palm facing up to engage the infant. When the investigator asked for the prop, infants with multilingual exposure consistently chose the one that the adult could see. The monolingual infants randomly chose between the two props, making no distinction.   

"Apparently, babies who aren't speaking yet can pick up nonverbal cues from others," said Dr. Esposito. "Infants from multilingual backgrounds appear more adept at picking up these cues and better able to see a situation from another point of view."

Katherine Kinzler, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University and one of the authors of the study, said that more research is needed to determine the extent to which exposure to another language influences communication skills across the lifespan.

Reference
Liberman Z, Woodward AL, Keysar B, and Kinzler KD. Exposure to multiple languages enhances communication skills in infancy. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12420 (2016)

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About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute's website at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.  

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.