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Exposure to multiple languages eases children’s communication skills

Children who hear more than one language spoken at home could be better communicators than those raised in monolingual homes, according to a new study from the University of Chicago.

Spring-boarding on the idea that effective communication requires the ability to see the perspectives of others, the researchers concluded that children raised in multilingual environments could be better at interpreting the meaning behind the words.

In a surprising twist, the children don't have to actually speak more than one language, just hearing a second language is a building block for social communication, according to the study.

"Children in multilingual environments have extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom, and observing the social patterns and allegiances that are formed based on language usage," says Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and an expert on language and social development.

While a bevy of research exists hailing the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, is the first to suggest that exposure to multiple languages has social benefits.

"These early socio-linguistic experiences could hone children's skills at taking other people's perspectives and provide them tools for effective communication," says Kinzler. "A lot of communication is about perspective taking, which is what our study measures."

The researchers worked with a total of 72 four-to-six-year old children who came from one of three different language backgrounds.

Twenty-four were from monolingual, Anglophone households, another 24 had regular exposure to other tongues and the remaining 24 were bilingual, meaning they were able to speak and understand two languages.

Each participating child sat at a table across from an adult to play a communication game that required moving objects in a grid.

While the child was in full view of the objects, the adult could only see some of the squares in the grid, for others were blocked.

The children knew their adult partner couldn't see all the squares because they had practiced from the adult's side before playing.

In the game, the adult would ask the child to move a specific object within the grid.

For example, the adult would say: "I see a small car, could you please move it to another square?"

The child would see three cars of different sizes, but knowing that the adult could only see two, he would have to interpret which car was the smallest from the adult's perspective.

Monolingual children moved the correct object only 50 percent of the time, whereas those with exposure to another language moved the correct object 76 percent of the time and the bilingual children moved the right object 77 percent of the time.


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