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Bilingual toddlers have an advantage over other children, says study

From the moment our son was born my bilingual husband was whispering his first language into our baby’s tiny ears. It’s hard on me because I only speak English, but new research suggests the exposure to bilingualism isn’t just good for our son’s language skills, but his impulse control as well (and at two years old, he could use all the help he can get in that department).

According to a new study out of the University of Oregon, kids aged four and under who speak two languages have more control over behavior and attention span than those who don’t. Researchers found bilingual kids develop inhibitory control—the ability to stop a reflexive behavior and react in a more adaptive way—faster than peers who speak just one language.

Basically, preschoolers who speak, or are even learning, a second language have better impulse control than those who don’t. This can have a big impact on behavior in classroom settings and at home.

“The development of inhibitory control occurs rapidly during the preschool years,” says Atika Khurana, the study’s co-author. “Children with strong inhibitory control are better able to pay attention, follow instructions and take turns.”

Khurana and her colleagues followed 1,146 Head Start children for 18 months. Some of the kids spoke only English, some already spoke both Spanish and English, and the third group entered Head Start speaking just Spanish, but became bilingual through Head Start attendance. "At the beginning of the study, the group that entered as already bilingual scored higher on a test of inhibitory control compared to the other two groups," says the study's lead author, Jimena Santillán.

The test involved asking the children to tap their pencil on on a desk twice when the person administering the test taps their own pencil once, or once when the other person taps twice. It takes a lot of impulse control to do the opposite of what the other person is doing, especially when you are four.

As the study progressed, the kids were tested twice more.

The researchers found both the bilingual kids and those who were learning a second language developed inhibitory control faster than the kids who spoke only English.

This could indicate that bilingualism has benefits beyond just speaking two languages, according to the study’s authors. Kids aren’t just expanding their vocabularies when they speak two languages, but their cognitive abilities as well.

If you don’t speak a second language yourself, don’t worry. Previous studies have found that even when parents don’t speak a second language, they can help toddlers pick one up (which is good news to me, as a monolingual mom).

Santillán says if further research can back up the results of her study, which was recently published in the journal Developmental Science, the findings could have implications for policies related to bilingual education and could help encourage families to raise their children as bilingual.

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