The advantages of growing up in a bilingual home can start as early as six months of age. In the study, infants who are exposed to more than one language show better attentional control than infants who are exposed to only one language. This means that exposure to bilingual environments should consider a significant factor in the early development of attention in infancy; the researchers say; could set the stage for lifelong cognitive benefits.
The researchers conducted two separate studies in which infants’ eye movements measured to assess attention and learning. Half of the infants who studied were being raised in monolingual environments while others being raised in environments in which they heard two languages spoken approximately half of the time each. As they lay in a crib equipped with a camera and screen; their eye movements are tracked and recorded as they watching pictures appear above them; in different areas of the screen. The tracking is conducting 60 times for each infant.

Monolingual and Bilingual Individuals

“By studying infants a population that does not yet speak any language we discovered that the real difference between monolingual and bilingual individuals later in life is not in the language itself, but rather; in the attention system used to focus on language.”This study tells us that from the very earliest stage of development; the networks that are the basis for developing attention are forming differently in infants who are raising in a bilingual environment.
Why is that important? It’s because attention is the basis for all cognition.” In the first study; the infants saw one of two images in the center of the screen followed by another image appearing on either the left or right side of the screen. The babies learned to expect that if, for example; a pink and white image appears in the center of the screen; it would follow by an attractive target image on the left; If a blue and yellow image appeared in the center; then the target would appear on the right. All the infants could learn these rules.

In the second study, which began in the same way, researchers switched the rule halfway through the experiment. When they tracked the babies’ eye movements; they found that infants who exposed to a bilingual environment better at learning the new rule and at anticipating where the target image would appear. This is difficult because they need to learn a new association and replace a successful response with a new contrasting one.

Infants only know which way to look if they can discriminate between the two pictures that appear in the center. “They will eventually anticipate the picture appearing on the right, for example; by making an eye movement even before that picture appears on the right. That the infants who are raising in bilingual environments are able to do this better after the rule is switched than those raised in a monolingual environment.

Brain’s processing system

Anything that comes through the brain’s processing system interacts with this attentional mechanism, says Adler. Therefore, language, as well as visual information, can influence the development of the attentional system. Researchers say the experience of attending to a complex environment; in which infants simultaneously process and contrast two languages may account for why infants raised in bilingual environments have greater attentional control than those raised in monolingual environments.
In previous research, bilingual children and adults outperformed monolinguals; on some cognitive tasks that require them to switch responses or deal with conflict. The reason for those differences thought to follow from the ongoing need for bilinguals to select which language to speak.
This new study pushes back the explanation to a time before individuals are actively using languages and switching between them. “What is so ground-breaking about these results, is that they look at infants who are not bilingual yet and who are only hearing the bilingual environment. This is what’s having an impact on cognitive performance.