Bilingual Children Reap Huge Rewards Later On

In England last month, Vita, for some reason, chose to speak exclusively in Russian. Now back in Moscow, she has decided on English as her language of the moment.

But although Vita and Benedict will naturally switch between the two -- hopefully in the right countries -- there are expatriate parents in Moscow who worry about their infants spending the best part of the day with Russian-speaking nannies, afraid the child's native language won't be up to par when they leave.

But even a couple of years of bilingualism will reap enormous rewards later on. Incredible recent research on bilingual and monolingual babies shows that at just two months, babies can differentiate between their native tongue and a foreign language. It seems, according to the study, the language an infant hears every day influences the developing pathways in the brain to respond to only relevant sounds. After these pathways are determined, by the age of three years, they become increasingly rigid, so after about six you cannot become truly bilingual.

This explains why bilingual children find it easier to learn new foreign languages later, and also the fact that even if a person loses touch with a language he or she heard as an infant, the individual can relearn that language in later life more easily than an adult who didn't hear it as a baby.

So even if you go back to the States or elsewhere when your children are still toddlers, should they take up Russian in college, they won't have that battle with impenetrable Russian endings that we monolinguals will probably never win. And even if it's not Russian they choose, just those few years of listening to the babushkas and nannies prattling around the cot will have given them a superior gift for languages.

The benefits go on. Bilingual children perform better in creative thinking tests: If you ask them how many uses they can think of for a brick, they come up with more answers than monolinguals, probably because they naturally distinguish between word and meaning and are thus free of the conceptual restraints of language.

They also appear to be more sensitive communicators, probably because from an early age they have to listen attentively to decide which language to speak.

And for those binational families, such as French-English ones worried that a Russian nanny or school will confuse the child with a third language, no proper experiments have been done yet, but the brain's capacity for storing language is now acknowledged to be greater than previously thought.

Experts recommend, though, that in the case of three or more languages at least one should be properly developed so that the child's cognitive development is kept up to an appropriate level for his or her age.