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Bilingual children learn new languages more easily
October 15, 2017, 4:09 pm

It is often claimed that people who are bilingual are better than monolinguals at learning languages. Now, the first study to examine bilingual and monolingual brains as they learn an additional language offers new evidence that supports this hypothesis, researchers say.

The study, conducted at Georgetown University Medical Center, suggests that early bilingualism helps with learning languages later in life. "The difference is readily seen in language learners' brain patterns. When learning a new language, bilinguals rely more than monolinguals on the brain processes that people naturally use for their native language. Bilinguals also appeared to study the new language more quickly than monolinguals," said the researchers.

In the study, 13 bilingual college students with Mandarin-speaking parents, who learned both English and Mandarin at an early age, were matched with a comparison group that consisted of 16 monolingual college students, who spoke English fluently.

The researchers studied Mandarin-English bilinguals because both of these languages differ structurally from the new language being learned. The new language was a well-studied artificial version of a Romance language, Brocanto2, which participants learned to both speak and understand. Using an artificial language allowed the researchers to completely control the learners' exposure to the language.

The two groups were trained on Brocanto2 over the course of about a week, while their natural brain activity as the brain processed the new language was recorded on electroencephalograph (EEG) machines. The researcher found clear difference between the two groups

By the end of the first day of training, the bilingual brains, but not the monolingual brains, showed a specific brain-wave pattern, termed the P600, which is commonly found when native speakers process their language. In contrast, the monolinguals only began to exhibit P600 only towards the last days of the training.

There has been a lot of debate about the value of early bilingual language education, and the new data points to a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grow up bilingual, said the researchers.


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