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How to ignite bilingual learning

little boy laughing surrounded by letters

Key points:
1. Babies can learn a second language with a play-based program in just one hour per day.
2. Bilingualism enhances cognitive skills, especially problem-solving abilities.
3. Researchers developed a method based on brain research to teach English to babies from Spanish-speaking families.
4. Infants in the intervention group showed significant gains in English comprehension and speaking skills.

Researchers have now discovered a play-based educational program that is capable of helping babies learn a second language in just one hour per day!

Scientists and parents have always been interested in knowing the advantages of learning a second language. What are these advantages and how do they aid in cognitive development? Bilingualism has been shown to improve cognitive abilities, especially problem-solving skills.

One question that parents and teachers always ask is how can they ignite second language learning? Can babies from monolingual families start to develop bilingual skills if they are given the right kind of opportunities and experiences?

To answer these questions, researchers invented a play-based method and curriculum to teach a second language to babies aged 7-33.5 months. The program is based on the latest brain research on bilingual development and works with high quality and quantity of tutor language, interactions, and active engagement. The first teachers trained on the program were 16 students from the University of Washington. After training at the University of Washington Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), they sent the students to Madrid to work as English tutors and see if they could teach a second language to babies from Spanish families. They enrolled 280 infants and children from families of varying income levels. Half were randomly assigned to the intervention group and received one hour of English per day, following their method for 18 weeks; and the other half received Madrid’s schools’ standard bilingual program. Both groups of children were tested in Spanish and English at the start and end of the 18 weeks.

Across all measures, the intervention infants showed a greater gain in English comprehension and production. On average, they showed 5 times higher gains in English speaking compared to the control group. Their Spanish continued to grow during the study and was not at all affected by this study.

You might ask yourself, did these babies remember what they had learned? Follow-up testing 18 weeks later proved that these infants had retained what they had learned. Additionally, the English language gains were similar between children who attended two schools in low-income neighborhoods and children who went to schools in mid-income areas. This suggests that wealth was not a factor in their ability to learn a foreign language.


Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences mentions: “Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning device on the planet and infants’ learning of languages is time sensitive. The human brain will never be better at learning a second language than during the first 3 years of life”.

This study demonstrates that, regardless of a baby’s background, infants are capable of learning a second language with the right science based approach.

But what was the key to help children increase their non-native language comprehension and production skills? The key was parentese, the speech style parents use to talk to their babies, which has simpler grammar, higher and exaggerated pitch, and drawn-out vowels. 

Parentese should not be confused with baby talk, which is a combination of non existing words, sometimes with incorrect grammar. On the contrary, parentese uses real words and correct grammar but it employs higher pitch, slower tempo, and an exaggerated intonation. For example, when presenting a new food, parents produce phrases like “Hiiii, baaaaby, do youuu waaant a banaaanaaaa? Tasssty baaaananaaa”.

Experts from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington explain that higher pitch helps children focus their attention to their caregiver and any other objects involved in their communicative interactions. Also, the pauses between each word and a slower tempo give the baby time to participate in this dialog. Therefore, just as parentese seems to be very important for monolingual language acquisition, it is also for boosting bilingual learning. 

There are also other tips you can try out to help your little one learn two languages. The American Speech-Hearing Association suggest to:

  • Read to your child in both languages. Find bilingual books or books in the languages you want to teach and read them to your little one every day. There is no need to read all books the same day. Try reading one for 10 to 15 minutes and the other one the next day.
  • Singing. Introduce a second language to your child with songs and rhymes.
  • Language programs. Children can practice both languages at camps or in bilingual school programs.

Remember that learning another language will not cause speech or language problems to your child. Reno Nargunde, a psychologist certified for the British Council’s Core Skills program, explains that bilingual children develop language skills just as other children do. The suggestion that bilingual children will take longer to speak than monolingual children is not supported by any current research. 

All in all, the most important thing is to engage in quality interactions with your child in any language your wish to teach him to boost his bilingual learning.

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5 Responses

  1. Hi. It was indeed useful. We speak 3 languages (Hindi, English and Bengali) at our ‘big’ home. So what will be impact! Will my baby able to learn atleast 2 of them.

    1. Hi! You can start with some easy tips, like reading to your baby in a different language, or listening to songs in a different language too. You can start with these small steps, for a different language program, we suggest doing some research on different programs near you, to see if there’s an online option while programs in person reopen.

    1. Hi Marilza! In the study reported in the Article, babies were Spanish Native Speakers who were exposed to playful English lessons daily. It’s assumed by the study, that this could be applied with other languages! It’s not a matter of which language, but more a matter on how and when to teach it. According to one of the scientists involved in the study, the human brain will never be better at learning a second language than during the first 3 years of life =) Don’t hesitate to try it out with your baby and letting us know how it goes!

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