JUL 26, 2017 6:39 AM PDT

A Play-based Way to Teach Babies a New Language

Speaking a second language can be an asset for anyone. It looks good on a resume, it allows a person to travel to where that second language is spoken, and studies have shown that learning a language keeps the brain sharp. It's also been shown that the younger a person is when learning a second language, the quicker they will acquire it and achieve fluency.

For children raised in a home where more than one language is spoken, it just happens, organically. Is there way, however, to teach young children who are not part of a bilingual family a second language? Researchers at the University of Washington Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) may have found a method to do just that.

The research, published July 17 in the journal Mind, Brain, and Education, looks at the ability of babies to learn a second language through active instruction rather than just exposure to that second language. The problem can be that babies like to crawl around, play with toys and drool on themselves; how can language instruction happen with these very young learners? To find out, a team of graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Washington used data from many of their research studies on infant development and brain growth and created a curriculum. After being trained in how to implement the method, they worked with babies in child education centers in Madrid, Spain. 280 infants and children were enrolled in the program, which partnered with the Madrid public school system. The children were from families at several levels of education and income.

The method was play-based, which research from I-LABS has shown to be effective in the age group. It uses social interaction, games, and definite quality and quantities of language from adult teachers. It's called "infant directed speech" or "parentese" and uses straightforward grammar and somewhat exaggerated, drawn out sounds. Essentially, it's a kind of baby talk, because babies can process this kind of speech readily

Infants aged 7 to 33.5 months were given one hour of play-based instruction in English from the I-LABS team, each school day for 18 weeks. As a control, a different group of children participated in the standard bilingual program offered by Madrid public educators. In both groups, during the instruction, the kids wore lightweight vests that had audio recording devices so the amount of English they spoke could be tracked.

The results were quite clear. The babies in the UW instruction group showed a rapid acquisition of English as compared to their counterparts in the control group. The UW method resulted in an average of 74 English words or phrases per child, per hour. The control group children achieved an English language rate of 13 words and phrases per child, per hour.

Dr. Naja Ferjan Ramirez, Ph.D, a research scientist from UW explained, "With the right science-based approach that combines the features known to grow children's language, 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. This has big implications for how we think about foreign-language learning." Not only was the method successful in getting the children to a higher level of language acquisition, follow-up testing 18 weeks after the classes ended showed they retained what they had learned. The results were across the board for the children, with no differences shown between lower income children and middle-income children. Also, their progress in learning their native language of Spanish was not negatively impacted, demonstrating that the brain can manage two languages at once, even when working to acquire new words and phrases.

The video below from I-LABS has more information on their method, check it out. Muchas gracias por leer.

Sources: University of Washington Seattle Times, Journal article via Wiley

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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