Being Bilingual: The Benefits of Having a Bilingual Mother

I did not have a bilingual mother; my interest in and talent for languages didn’t show itself until I was in school and was entered into an advanced course that taught French.

Language In the Womb

Children of bilingual mothers do have a great advantage when it comes to language, however. Most people would guess that growing up in a bilingual household in general gives you a language advantage if only because you will most probably have a Heritage Language to throw around from childhood.

But studies conducted by Krista Byers-Heinlein, Tracey Burns and Janet Werker of the Infant Studies Center at the University of British Columbia have demonstrated that the advantages to having a bilingual mother extend far beyond that – and reach back in time to influence children while still in utero.

The studies measured the sucking reflex of infants in a variety of scenarios – newborns from bilingual mothers and newborns from monolingual parents exposed both to the two languages their mothers’ spoke and to different languages. The result were pretty clear: Children of bilingual mothers definitely recognized each of their mothers’ languages as distinct and familiar.

In other words, they were born with some foundation of both languages in their developing brains. It’s important that they not only recognized the sounds as familiar, but recognized them as distinct – they already knew these were not the sounds of one bizarre language, but of two separate languages (English and Tagalog, in this case).

Born Bilingual

The advantages for such children are clear: They should be able to pick up both languages very easily. What I’d like to see now would be a study to determine how easily they pick up other languages – does being born to a bilingual mother also make you a savant of sorts with languages? Could these children, armed from birth with Tagalog and English, then proceed to learn German easily, because their brains have been acquiring and sorting phonetic sounds even as they formed?

This is fascinating stuff for those of us interested in the study of how language is formed and absorbed.