Linguist explores neurodevelopment in bilingual preterm infants

Researchers are teaming up to examine bilingualism as a potential strategy to improve memory, reasoning, problem-solving and other executive functions in preterm infants.

Led by FIU linguist Melissa Baralt and Baptist Children’s Hospital neonatal nurse practitioner Ashley Darcy Mahoney, the study focuses on how speaking two languages affects the executive function of elementary-age children who were born at 35 to 39 weeks gestation.

“Preterm birth can result in long-term deficits in executive functioning and cognitive performance,” said Baralt, an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages. “There is research that shows that bilingualism can lead to advantages in executive functioning. We are testing the hypothesis that bilingualism may improve preterm infants’ neurodevelopment.”

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Bilingual children have been shown to have greater academic achievement relative to monolingual children. They consistently outperform monolingual peers in tests measuring inhibitory control, memory, awareness, conflict management, attention and cognitive flexibility, according to Baralt. These performance differences have been reported across multiple cultures and for various languages, regardless of the similarity or dissimilarity of the two languages.

Bringing together the fields of linguistics and nursing, Baralt and Mahoney are the first researchers to examine the benefits of bilingualism for children born premature.

“Providers need to be equipped with information to answer questions that parents may have about their child’s learning and development, especially children born premature,” Mahoney said.

The study, still in the early stages of data collection, is funded by the Kranys Children’s Foundation Fund, the Language Learning Journal, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It will conclude in 2017.