Babies who hear two languages regularly when they are in their mother's womb are more open to being bilingual, a study published this week in Psychological Science shows.
Psychological scientists from the University of British Columbia and a researcher from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in France tested two groups of newborns, one of which only heard English in the womb and the others who heard English and Tagalog, which is spoken in the Philippines.
To determine the babies' preference for a language, the researchers studied the newborns' sucking reflex; increased sucking by a neonate indicates interest in a stimulus.
In the first experiment, infants heard 10 minutes of speech, with every minute alternating between English and Tagalog.
The English-only infants were more interested in English than Tagalog -- in other words, they "exhibited increased sucking behavior" when they heard English than when they heard Tagalog being spoken.
The infants exposed to two languages, on the other hand, showed an equal preference for both English and Tagalog, suggesting to the researchers that prenatal bilingual exposure prepares infants to listen to and learn about both of their native languages.
The researchers also tested the newborns to see if they could tell the differences between two languages -- key to becoming bilingual.
The infants listened to sentences being spoken in one of the languages until they lost interest, and then heard sentences in the other language or heard sentences in the same language, but spoken by a different person.
The infants exhibited increased sucking when they heard the other language being spoken, but their sucking did not increase if they heard additional sentences in the same language.
"These results suggest that bilingual infants, along with monolingual infants, are able to discriminate between the two languages, providing a mechanism from the first moments of life that helps ensure bilingual infants do not confuse their two languages," the authors of the study said.