Psychology

Learning Control at an Early Age

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Science  01 May 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5927, pp. 568
DOI: 10.1126/science.324_568b
CREDIT: ALAN LANGUS/LANGUAGE COGNITION AND DEVELOPMENT LAB/INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL OF ADVANCED STUDIES

Adults who try to master a second language often never attain the degree of fluency with which they converse in their mother tongue. In contrast, children usually fare considerably better, and it is not uncommon for the descendants of immigrants to display proficiency in the parental language as well as that of their peers. Even more impressively, infants exposed to two languages from birth assort two distinct vocabularies and sentence structures while reaching milestones in language production as quickly as their monolingual compatriots.

Kovács and Mehler demonstrate that cognitive control, which is inferred to be needed for switching between language representations, develops more rapidly in 7-month-old infants that have grown up in a bilingual, rather than monolingual, household. Both sets of infants learned at the same rate to associate auditory cues with the visual reward of a gaily-colored puppet shown either to their left or their right, but only the children of parents with different mother tongues (in Trieste, most frequently Italian and Slovene) were able to inhibit the learned response when the reward location was switched and to shift their anticipatory gaze to the other side.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106, 6556 (2009).

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