Exposure to multiple languages may sharpen infants’ music
sensitivity in the first year after birth, new research has found.
Compared to infants learning one language (monolinguals),
those who grow up with more than one language (bilinguals/multilinguals) are
more sensitive to the subtle pitch variations in language.
To understand whether such sensitivity is specific to
language in nature, we further tested monolingual and bilingual infants’
sensitivity to music pitch.
Results showed that infants growing up in bilingual
environments are more able to distinguish between two violin notes than their
These findings suggest heightened acoustic sensitivity for
bilingual infants. That is, infants’ multilingual experiences may make them
better at detecting the small differences in sounds in the ambient environment
than monolinguals, whether the sounds are coming from language or music.
It has been shown that speaking a tone language like Chinese
will facilitate music perception probably due to the extensive usage of pitch
on words in that language. The current research suggests that bilingual
experience may yield a similar effect.
Sensitivity to sounds
When a child learns two different languages, they form a
more complex, detailed system, with overlapping sounds enabling better
comprehension of acoustics in general.
These infants may benefit from their experience of detecting
and distinguishing subtle differences between two languages, and transfer this
ability to non-speech sound perception, like music.
Infants may also pay more attention to input acoustic
details than monolinguals, with the constant switching between languages
serving as a frequent exercise for the ears and the brain.
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The effect of bilingualism is not restricted to the language
domain. When bilinguals talk, all languages they know are activated by the
A bilingual’s brain is constantly working on this language
suppression and activation process.
Many scholars argue that bilinguals have better cognitive
abilities such as executive control. This practice generates life-long
cognitive benefits, and makes bilinguals think more adaptively, abstractly, and
Benefits surface early in infancy. Apart from their
heightened acoustic sensitivity to language and music, bilingual infants have
also been shown to outperform monolinguals in their:
Ability to attend to, identify and detect new
Ability to suppress the initially learned rules
and switch to new rules, responses, targets
Degree of brain plasticity, showing neural sensitivity when
encountering sounds from a non-native language
Discrimination or recognition between languages
Learning of two speech structures simultaneously
Interpretation of speakers’ intended meaning
Sensitivity to visual cues in language
Social communication skills
Working memory capacity and many more
Are there any
Regardless of anecdotes claiming that children growing up
bilingually will have a slower developmental trajectory than monolinguals,
researchers have found that bilingual children have the ability to separate
their two languages early on, and that their pace of language development is
not different from monolingual children given adequate exposure.
Whether it is learning a new language, picking up a language
you used to speak, or raising your child bilingually, becoming bilingual may
change your perception, cognition, learning and even brain structures.
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