Video: Babies' brains develop differently in bilingual environments

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/3/2007 7:39:37 PM ET 2007-01-04T00:39:37

One-year-old Noah Servito lives in a multilingual world. His father speaks English. His mother and one grandmother speak Korean and English, while the other grandmother speaks Tagalog, the language of the Philippines.

Dr. Patricia Kuhl studies the amazing process of infants acquiring language.

A big part of the research in her lab at the University of Washington now focuses on babies like Noah who learn more than one language at once.

Noah's mom Mijung is eager to volunteer.

Technicians put caps on the infants that painlessly record the electrical signals in their brains as they listen to the sounds like "ba" and "da" that make up the basic elements of language.

At first, baby's brain is an empty slate.

"The newborn can differentiate all the sounds of all languages," says Kuhl.

But by the time they're 6 months old, most babies respond only to the sounds they hear repeatedly from parents and others — usually just one language.

But what if the infant hears two languages, at home or in programs like this one?

It turns out the baby responds to both, but each one goes into a different part of the brain.

"The baby brain is mapping two different sets of circuitry," says Kuhl. "One is for the first language, one for the second language."

And the studies show that the ability to switch from one brain section to another allows some babies actually to perform better at certain tasks — mental dexterity brought on by a bilingual world.

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