Scientists, some of them using sophisticated brain imaging techniques, are deepening their understanding of language development – and multiple language development – in young children. The research, Ed Week reports, lends support for starting second language instruction in the early grades. By extension, it also offers a good frame for thinking about children whose first language is not English.

Scientists at University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) used magnetoencephalography, or MEG, to map the brain activity of infants 6-12 months old and found, Ed Week reports, that “the auditory and motor regions of the brain start to react more in response to speech, as opposed to other sounds.” As I-LABS co-director Patricia Kulh tells Ed Week, “Babies start out as citizens of the world; they can discriminate the sounds of any language.” Then, at 8-10 months old, they start to distinguish – and specialize in – the sounds of their native language. I-LABS experiments also confirm what other research tells us – that children learn language best from direct human interaction.

“When babies born to native-English-speaking parents played three times a week during that window with a native-Mandarin-speaking tutor, at 12 months, they had progressed in their ability to recognize both English and Mandarin sounds, rather than starting to retrench in the non-native language,” Ed Week reports. “By contrast, children exposed only to audio or video recordings of native speakers showed no change in their language trajectory. Brain-imaging of the same children backed up the results of test-based measures of language specialization….

“Social engagement, particularly with speakers of multiple languages, is critical to language learning. Social and emotional areas of the brain mediate language areas, but only now—with an MEG that can correct for the child’s head movement—are researchers starting to measure those neural connections.”

Ed Week also notes that learning more than one language in early childhood provides other benefits. “For example,” it reports, “at the science-oriented Ultimate Block Party held in New York City this month, children of different backgrounds played games in which they were required to sort toys either by shape or color, based on a rule indicated by changing flashcards. A child sorting blue and yellow ducks and trucks by shape, say, might suddenly have to switch to sorting them by color. The field games exemplified research findings that bilingual children have greater cognitive flexibility than monolingual children. That is, they can adapt better than monolingual children to changes in rules—What criteria do I use to sort?—and close out mental distractions—It doesn’t matter that some blue items are ducks and some are trucks.”