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Studies: You can help your toddler be bilingual, even if you aren’t

Many parents love the idea of giving their child the gift of a second language. But short of moving to a foreign country, can a parent who is not bilingual help children learn another language?

New research published in the journal for The International Mind, Body and Education Society suggests you don’t have to be bilingual to help your child learn a second language—but you might want to be choose a preschool that is.

“It is possible to give very young children the opportunity to start learning a second language, with only one hour of play per day in an early education setting," said Naja Ferjan Ramirez, co-author and a research scientist at the University of Washington Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences, in a press release this month about the findings.

For the study, Ferjan Ramirez and her colleagues developed a play-based English-language curriculum for public infant-education centers in Madrid, Spain. University of Washington (UW) undergrads and recent grads served as English tutors, using play-based activities to encourage children to try out English words and phrases. They also spoke to the young children in developmentally appropriate manners known as “infant-directed speed” or “parentese.” (You probably already do this—it’s basically simpler grammar, higher pitch and drawn-out vowels.)

For 18 weeks, babies between 7 months and 33 months had daily one-hour English sessions. Meanwhile, a control group participated in Madrid’s standard, classroom style bilingual program for two hours each week. In the end, the UW toddlers were recorded practicing about 74 English phrases and words per hour, while the control group only spoke about 13. When the UW kids were tested 18 weeks later, they proved they’d retained what they’d learned.

According to Ferjan Ramirez, the findings indicate even babies from monolingual homes can develop bilingual abilities at an early age.

In the United States, the researchers say replicating the study would not only help English-speaking kids learn a second language—but would also help the 27 percent of American children who don’t learn English at home.

And, for parents, the good news is that helping your child develop language skills may be as simple as playing and practicing words with them—even if you are not fluent.

What’s more, it’s never too early to start language training: Another newly published study out the University of Kansas found fetuses just older than 8 months gestational age could already tell the difference between English and Japanese.

Using a fetal biomagnetometer strapped over the mother’s belly, researchers were able to measure heart rate changes in the womb. And, sure enough, the heart rates were different when different languages were spoken.

These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero, so if you’re pregnant you may want to start practicing your foreign language skills.

There’s nothing to suggest your fetus will pick up the vocabulary, but if you start practicing now maybe you’ll pick up enough to speak some foreign “parentese” by the time the baby’s ready for preschool.

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