Bilingual Children May Recognize Voices Better

A new study provides yet another example of the cognitive benefits of learning another language. The findings, published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, show that bilingual children are better than their monolingual peers at recognizing voices, including those speaking in a known language (with a foreign accent) as well as an unknown language.

“Bilingual children have a perceptual advantage when processing information about a talker’s voice,” said study author Dr. Susannah Levi, assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders at New York University’s (NYU) Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

“This advantage exists in the social aspect of speech perception, where the focus is not on processing the linguistic information, but instead on processing information about who is talking. Speech simultaneously carries information about what is being said and who is saying it.”

Figuring out who is speaking is an important social component of communication and begins to develop even before birth. The researchers investigated how children process information about who is talking and sought to determine whether differences exist between monolingual and bilingual children.

The study involved 41 children, composed of 22 monolingual English speakers and 19 bilingual children. The bilingual children all spoke English and either spoke or were exposed to a second language (other than German) on a daily basis. The children were divided by age into two groups: nine years and younger and 10 years and older.

The children completed a series of tasks listening to different voices. For example, in one task, they listened to pairs of words in a language they knew (English, spoken with a German accent) and an unfamiliar language (German). They were then asked to determine whether a pair of words was spoken by the same person or two different people.

In another task, the young participants learned to recognize the voices of three speakers represented by cartoon characters on a computer screen. After listening to these characters speak a series of words, a hidden character spoke a word and the children had to identify the speaker.

The experiments revealed that older children performed better than their younger counterparts, confirming prior research showing that perceiving information about who is talking improves with age.

The findings also show that bilingual children performed better than monolingual children in recognizing and processing voices speaking in both English and German. When listening to English, bilingual children were better at discriminating and learning to identify voices. They were also faster at learning voices. When hearing German, bilingual children were better at discriminating voices.

“The study is a strong test of the benefits of bilingualism because it looked for differences in both a language familiar to all participants and one unfamiliar to them. The bilingual advantage occurred even in a language that was unfamiliar,” Levi said.

Levi suggests several possible reasons for this bilingual advantage: Bilingual children may have more experience listening to accented speech (as the English was spoken with an accent) and multiple languages, may have better cognitive control and focus for the tasks, or may have better social perception — an important tool for perceiving voices.

“While we need more research to explain why bilingual children are better and faster at learning different voices, our study provides yet another example of the benefits of speaking and understanding multiple languages,” said Levi.

Source: New York University