Steven Errico
Steven Errico © Getty

How to awaken your new-born to music? Introduce him to a second language!

Babies in a bilingual environment would be more sensitive to music, says a recent study published by Cambridge University Press.What are the links between music and bilingualism? Here are a few hints.

You've just had a baby and you're already concerned about the future. Will he have blue or green eyes? Will he be good at music or painting? Will he be an astronaut or a conductor? Your head is teeming with projects as you quietly rock the crib.

You're right, you should get all your ducks in a row, and it's never too early to organize. You will may still have to wait a few years for calculation or philosophy, but there are things you can start working on in the first few months. Let's take music for example: it seems as though children exposed to music at an early age develop better cognitive skills. 

You are all set for this: your tablet already hosts several versions of Peter and the wolf and Animal Carnival is ready at hand on your phone. Obviously, you're looking forward to bringing your child to a performance dedicated to young audiences, in a real concert hall. But you may have to wait a little bit for this.

Yet, there is one thing you can do right now. Consider using a nanny whose mother tongue is not French. Can't see the connection? Well, when you jealously watch your Colombian neighbour happily navigate between French and Spanish while addressing her young children, know that doing so she killed two birds with one stone: in addition to being beneficial gymnastics for the brain, bilingualism would be crucial in developing musical sensitivity in babies.

This is what researchers Liquan Liu of the University of Sidney West and René Kager of the University of Utrecht claim. Specialized in bilingualism, they have proven through their previous work that bilingual babies develop a greater sensitivity to discern subtle variations in the tonal heights of a language. In their new study, they went one step further by taking an interest babies sensitivity towards music who live in a bilingual environment. According to the researchers, bilingual babies are better able to detect subtle nuances, linguistic or musical, in their surroundings. A capacity related to their greater acoustic sensitivity.

When a child learns two languages at the same time, this learning forms a more complex and detailed system of overlapping sounds to allow for better acoustic comprehension in general," explains Liquan Liu. These babies could benefit from this differentiation of subtle nuances between two languages by transposing it to the perception of non-verbal sounds, such as music. They'd also be more attentive to acoustic details than monolingual babies, thanks to the permanent back and forth between two languages, which is an extra exercise for the ear and brain."

That said, it is important to do so early, before the child's first full year is over. The researchers worked with two groups of babies aged 8 to 9 months. All had Dutch, in common, as their mother tongue, and for the group of bilingual babies, the second language belonged to the category of non-tonal languages (those for which melody or height does not determine the meaning of the word). The two groups listened to sounds from a foreign language and violin sounds, and then the researchers tried to see if they reacted to the contrasts.

In contrast to monolingual babies, bilingual babies reacted very clearly to the contrasting sounds played on the violin: “The results showed that babies in a bilingual environment are more receptive to the difference between two violin notes than the monolingual group. As they are exposed to a more complex environment in the process of learning both languages, bilingual babies may be more sensitive to the acoustic nuances of stimuli, a sensitivity that is not limited to language, but also applies to musical stimuli."

So, if you want to prevent your Colombian neighbour's children from becoming conductors, while yours become an astronaut, introduce your baby to a second language. Your French is too basic and your English accent betrays you? Get a native baby-sitter now!

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