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Studies Suggest Multilingual Exposure Boosts Children's Communication Skills


Does exposure to more than one language make a child a better communicator? Well, a pair of studies out of Chicago suggest it does. The first study looked at children 4 to 6 years old, and the second study looked at toddlers 14 to 17 months old. And both found that children growing up in environments where more than language is spoken were better at understanding other people's perspectives. And researchers argue that that's a social skill that drives good communication. Katherine Kinzler is one of those researchers. She's formerly of the University of Chicago and now associate professor of psychology at Cornell University. Welcome to the program.

KATHERINE KINZLER: Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Just to be clear, what you were testing was not whether the child understood words being asked but whether the child had the ability to take the perspective of the person who was doing the asking. Describe what you did first with the 4- to 6-year-olds. This involved three cars - three toy cars - one small, one medium, one large.

KINZLER: So the child could see three cars. Yet, the child could also see that the adult sitting across from her could only see two of those cars - the medium and the large car. And so when the adult said to the child, oh, I see a small car; can you move the small car for me, to correctly understand what the adult was saying, the child would realize that she was talking about the medium car or the child's medium because the adult could only see the medium and large.

SIEGEL: And after doing this with a few dozen kids, you found there really was a significant difference between those who were exposed to a another language at home or somewhere in their lives and those who weren't.

KINZLER: That's right. And so we found that children who were bilingual were really good at taking the adult's perspective. And so about 80 percent of the time, those children would reach for the medium car instead of the smallest car, knowing that the medium car was the one that the adult could see. And I think what was even, you know, more surprising to us was that children who were exposed to another language yet were effectively monolingual themselves were just as good as the bilingual children at reaching for the medium car.

SIEGEL: And for the toddlers, you had two bananas on the table, one of them evident to the questioner and one of them not. And you asked the little ones, you know, I see a banana; can you give me the banana? Once again, the children exposed to another language or bilingual where much more likely to know that means the banana in plain view.

KINZLER: Exactly. Even these - you know, these are babies, really, who are, you know, barely talking themselves. And yet, again, when they heard somebody say something like, oh, I see a banana; can you hand me the banana - now, there were two bananas, so neither one was exactly, you know, a right or wrong answer. It's just that one of those bananas was one that was mutually visible. So the baby could see that the adult could also see this banana, so presumably, she was referring to the one that she could see.

SIEGEL: What do you think this has to do with learning a second language, hearing two languages at home?

KINZLER: So I think that children who hear more than one language have, you know, incredibly rich social experiences that monolingual children don't face. And so, you know, these kids do things, like they attend to who speaks which language to whom, when and where different languages are spoken, who understands what content and so forth.

So you know, I think of this as kind of this continued practice in taking the linguistic perspective of others. And so from that, I think that children are able to perspective-take more generally.

SIEGEL: What do you say to the parent out there saying, oh, no, my child is ruined; she only knows English.

KINZLER: (Laughter) You know, I would say that development is a complicated thing, and there are, you know, lots of things that parents can be doing to facilitate their children's development. But I do think that if parents can find an opportunity to expose their children to multiple languages, that that's a good thing.

And you know, kind of the good news of this research, I think, for many monolingual parents is that to experience some of these benefits - these social benefits, children don't have to become completely bilingual. So even children who are merely exposed, you know, somewhat regularly to another language seem to be just as good at perspective-taking.

SIEGEL: Katherine Kinzler, thank you very much for talking with us.

KINZLER: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Katherine Kinzler's associate professor of psychology at Cornell University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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