How Bilingualism Affects Children’s Learning

by Lillian Pao (’18)

Fig. 1: Researchers at the National University of Singapore believe that bilingual babies are more skilled and proficient with learning languages than monolingual ones.

There are 6,500 spoken languages around the world and the most popular language is Mandarin Chinese, which uses vocal pitch to create tone. Tone is used in the English language to distinguish questions, statements, and other elements of emotional states. Children who are learning two languages have to learn how words are defined in both of their native languages. There are many possible conflicts that may result, such as diverges in Mandarin and English where pitches on certain words vary or the child may become confused from learning two different languages from birth. Researchers from the National University of Singapore tested whether the bilingual infants were able to integrate pitch when learning new words.

A series of four experiments were completed to test 12-13-month-old infants in both Mandarin and English and their sensitivity to contrast in lexical tone. The fourth experiment revealed that Mandarin monolingual infants could integrate lexical tone variation and could detect similar and distinct mispronunciations of words. A major part of their research incorporated the Switch task, which investigates infants’ abilities to match labels to the correct word and meaning. Based on the Switch task, 14-month-old monolingual infants were not able to integrate phonological variation when learning new words. One particular example would be distinguishing the letter “b” from “d”.  However, monolingual infants were able to incorporate variation when recognizing familiar words. Meanwhile, 17-month-old bilingual infants were able to link similar sounding words to its correct meaning. Early exposure to both English and Mandarin, rather than just Mandarin, leads to better performance in learning Mandarin, because they have contextual support and they are able to integrate lexical tone variations. Although infants are able to learn two different languages, further studies need to be tested on how babies track words in speech and how they process sentences in both languages.



  1. Singh, F. L. S. Poh, C. S, L. Fu, Limits on monolingualism? a comparison of monolingual and bilingual infants’ abilities to integrate lexical tone in novel word learning. Frontiers in Psychology, (2016), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00667.
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