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4 Sep, 2014

Bilingual babies are smarter, Singapore University research shows

Singapore, Sept 2, 2014 – (ACN Newswire) – A team of investigators and clinician-scientists in Singapore and internationally have found that there are advantages associated with exposure to two languages in infancy. As part of a long-term birth cohort study of Singaporean mothers and their offspring called GUSTO – seminally a tripartite project between A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) and the National University Hospital (NUH) – (see Annex A at the bottom of this dispatch), six-month old bilingual infants recognised familiar images faster than those brought up in monolingual homes.

They also paid more attention to novel images compared to monolingual infants. The findings reveal a generalised cognitive advantage that emerges early in bilingual infants, and is not specific to a particular language. The findings were published online on 30 July 2014 in the highly-regarded scientific journal, Child Development.

Infants were shown a coloured image of either a bear or a wolf. For half the group, the bear was made to become the “familiar” image while the wolf was the “novel” one, and vice versa for the rest of the group. The study showed that bilingual babies got bored of familiar images faster than monolingual babies.

Several previous studies in the field have shown that the rate at which an infant becomes bored of a familiar image and subsequent preference for novelty is a common predictor of better pre-school developmental outcomes, such as advanced performance in concept formation, non-verbal cognition, expressive and receptive language, and IQ tests. The past studies showed that babies who looked at the image and then rapidly get bored, demonstrated higher performance in various domains of cognition and language later on as children.

Bilingual babies also stared for longer periods of time at the novel image than their monolingual counterparts, demonstrating “novelty preference”. Other studies in the field have shown this is linked with improved performance in later IQ and vocabulary tests during pre-school and school-going years.

Associate Professor Leher Singh, who is from the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and lead author of this study said, “One of the biggest challenges of infant research is data collection. Visual habituation works wonderfully because it only takes a few minutes and capitalises on what babies do so naturally, which is to rapidly become interested in something new and then rapidly move on to something else. Even though it is quite a simple task, visual habituation is one of the few tasks in infancy that has been shown to predict later cognitive development.”

A bilingual infant encounters more novel linguistic information than its monolingual peers. A six-month old infant in a bilingual home is not just learning another language; it is learning two languages while learning to discern between the two languages it is hearing. It is possible that since learning two languages at once requires more information-processing efficiency, the infants have a chance to rise to this challenge by developing skills to cope with it.

Said Assoc Prof Leher Singh, “As adults, learning a second language can be painstaking and laborious. We sometimes project that difficulty onto our young babies, imagining a state of enormous confusion as two languages jostle for space in their little heads. However, a large number of studies have shown us that babies are uniquely well positioned to take on the challenges of bilingual acquisition and in fact, may benefit from this journey.”

In comparison to many other countries, a large proportion of Singaporean children are born into bilingual environments. This finding that bilingual input to babies is associated with cognitive enhancement, suggests a potentially strong neurocognitive advantage for Singaporean children outside the domain of language, in processing new information and recognising familiar objects with greater accuracy.

Said Assoc Prof Chong Yap Seng, Lead Principal Investigator for GUSTO, “This is good news for Singaporeans who are making the effort to be bilingual. These findings were possible because of the unique Singaporean setting of the study and the detailed neurodevelopmental testing that the GUSTO researchers perform.” Assoc Prof Chong is Senior Consultant, Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, National University Hospital (NUH), as well as Acting Executive Director, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).


Figure 1: Image of a child going through the visual habituation test


Background Notes:

The sample for this study comprised 114 Chinese, Malay and Indian infants, of whom 60 were bilingual. There were no differences in the mothers’ education and income, or household income, between the monolingual and bilingual groups.

Bilingual infants in this study are defined as infants having at least 25 per cent exposure to a second language.

Monolingual infants in this study are defined as infants having at least 90 per cent exposure

About the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR),  www.a-star.edu.sg.

About the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), www.sics.a-star.edu.sg.

About the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), www.kkh.com.sg.

About the National University Hospital (NUH),  www.nuh.com.sg.

About the National University Health System (NUHS) : www.nuhs.edu.sg.

About the National University of Singapore (NUS):  www.nus.edu.sg.

Annex A

The GUSTO Study: Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes

GUSTO is a major long-term study of pregnant Singaporean mothers and their offspring from birth till nine years of age. The study aims to find ways of preventing the onset of diseases in later years. Backed by mounting evidence that the environment in which a baby is conceived, born and grows up, determines the child’s growth and development, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), and the National University Hospital (NUH) partnered A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences to study and better understand just how profoundly environmental factors affect the development of diseases like diabetes.

The GUSTO birth cohort programme was launched in June 2009. The team recruited 1,247 expectant mothers in their 11th to 14th week of pregnancy over a period of 15 months for GUSTO. Altogether 1,176 GUSTO babies were safely delivered, with the youngest and last GUSTO baby born on Labour Day, 1 May 2011.

This seminal effort was led by Associate Professor Chong Yap Seng, Associate Professor of Medicine, Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore;  Senior Consultant, Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, National University Hospital,  and Acting Executive Director, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), A*STAR.

Successes & Outcomes:

Over the past four years, GUSTO has established a state-of-the-art cohort study with detailed protocol and high compliance.  It is one of the most intensively studied cohorts in Asia of mothers and children, growing in strength in epigenetic analysis, and involves over 100 investigators in Singapore, Canada, New Zealand,  and the United Kingdom.

GUSTO research has established techniques for performing MRI scans on infants without any need for sedation. With techniques for MRI assessments developed in GUSTO, NUH and KKH now use the same techniques in their routine clinical management. As a result, even very ill babies may be safely sent for MRI scans without any need for sedation. This has achieved a broader objective of changing clinical practice.

GUSTO data shows a much higher incidence of gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) than previously expected and informs clinical studies aimed at reducing rates of gestational diabetes, late preterm births, childhood obesity, allergies in children, neurodevelopment, and improved capacity for early school performance. The team found that higher glucose levels in expectant mothers can still affect fat levels in infants, even in the absence of GDM.

GUSTO data also showed that changes in gene expression relating to mild prematurity are more important than those related to birth size, and this has major implications for future disease risk.

By creating unifying research and an integrated basic and clinical disciplines platform, GUSTO has attracted considerable partnership with industry without compromising its academic objectives, and energised Singapore’s thrust in nutritional sciences. The extent of industry funding, local and inter-department collaborations has made it possible to create jobs and develop human capital to build capabilities to conduct competitive translational and clinical research, and has attracted companies to Singapore as a hub for research and development.

GUSTO researchers are proud to have contributed to the understanding that led to the United Nations Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) in 2011 to focus on the developmental dimension (Clause 26).