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UW study shows babies can easily learn a second language under right curriculum

SEATTLE — Learning a foreign language can be hard for adults, but picking up language comes easier for young children and babies.

Researchers at the University of Washington developed a curriculum for babies to pick up a foreign language with an hour of daily instruction.

“If we give babies the right kind of learning opportunities, they can learn two languages at once no matter where they’re from,” said researcher Naja Ferjan-Ramirez.

A new study by researchers at the UW's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, published July 17 in the academic journal Mind, Brain, and Education, is among the first to investigate how babies can learn a second language outside of the home.

Ferjan-Ramirez developed a play-based, intensive foreign language learning curriculum with her colleagues at I-LABS. The method emphasizes social interaction and high-quality instruction from native speaking tutors.

A key component of the curriculum is tutors using infant directed speech, known as parentese -- it’s the exaggerated style parents often use when talking to babies.

“It turns out that babies, well first of all, love to listen to parentese, but it's not just that they love it, they're benefiting from it,” said Ferjan-Ramirez.

The slowed-down speech drawing out vowels helps babies pick up language sound quicker.

"That means that a baby born in Seattle can tell the differences among the sounds of not only English but Spanish and German,” said Ferjan-Ramirez.

Ferjan-Ramirez and her team trained 16 UW undergraduate students to work as tutors and took this curriculum they developed to test in Madrid, Spain, teaching native Spanish-speaking babies English as a second language.

The country’s extensive public education system enabled the researchers to enroll 280 infants and children from families of varying income levels.

Babies aged 7 months to 33.5 months were given one hour of English sessions a day for 18 weeks, while a control group received the Madrid schools’ standard bilingual program.

Both groups of children were tested in Spanish and English at the start and end of the 18 weeks.

The children also wore special vests outfitted with lightweight recorders that recorded their English learning. The recordings were analyzed to determine how many English words and phrases each child spoke.

“We now know the baby brain is fully prepared and ready to focus on two languages at the same time,” said Ferjan-Ramirez.

The children who received the UW method showed rapid increases in English comprehension and production, and significantly outperformed the control group peers at all ages on all tests of English.

By the end of the 18-week program, the children in the UW program produced an average of 74 English words or phrases per child per hour; children in the control group produced 13 English words or phrases per child per hour.

Ferjan Ramirez said the findings show that even babies from monolingual homes can develop bilingual abilities at this early age.
Follow-up testing 18 weeks later showed the children had retained what they learned.

The English gains were similar between children attending the two schools serving predominantly low-income neighborhoods and the two serving mid-income areas, suggesting that wealth was not a significant factor in the infants’ ability to learn a foreign language.

Children’s native language (Spanish) continued to grow as they were learning English, and was not negatively affected by introducing a second language.

“We would certainly hope these findings will affect decisions about our youngest learners and curricula as they're developed,” said Ferjan-Ramirez.