Anyone who’s ever been around another person speaking a foreign language probably knows the feeling of cluelessness. Trying as hard as possible to grasp onto anything that sounds familiar in hopes of understanding something about what they’re saying. What many of us don’t realize, however, is that in trying to understand, we’re also paying attention to things beyond the words being said, such as a person’s tone, body language, and overall perspective. All these factors make communication more effective. And while many of us learn to do this at an older age, children exposed to multiple languages at home learn to do this from the beginning. New research suggests this could make them better communicators.

“Children are really good at acquiring language,” said co-author of the study Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology and internationally known expert on communication and cognition, in a press release. “They master the vocabulary and the syntax of the language, but they need more tools to be effective communicators. A lot of communication is about perspective taking, which is what our study measures.”

For the study, researchers from the University of Chicago recruited 72 children aged 4 to 6 who fell into one of three language categories: monolinguals (exposure to little, if any, other language besides English), exposures (those who spoke mainly English but were exposed to other languages), and bilinguals. Each child participated in a communication task with an adult that involved moving objects around in a standing grid placed between them on a table. On the adult’s side, some of the squares were blocked so the objects could only be seen from the child’s side — the kids understood this because they first played the game from the adult’s side.

The children then played from their side. The adult asked each child to move an object in the grid, with the intention of seeing whether the child accounted for their inability to see everything. For example, if there were three cars — small, medium, and large — but the small one was blocked from the adult’s view, the child would be expected to move the medium one when asked to move the “small” one.

Of all the kids, those exposed to other languages the most performed the best. Children who only spoke English moved the correct object about 50 percent of the time, while those exposed a little more got it right 76 percent of the time. Bilingual kids, meanwhile chose the correct object 77 percent of the time. In other words, only a little exposure to other languages went a long way in improving communication skills.

Other studies have shown that learning new languages can change the way we perceive the world. A study from just last month showed that English speakers were less likely to perceive more than the immediate situation than German speakers. Speaking about a video of a woman walking in a parking lot, English speakers were more likely to describe it as, “A woman is walking,” while German speakers were more likely to say, “A woman is walking toward her car.”

The findings of the current study suggest there are other advantages to learning different languages at a young age, the researchers said. Kids’ thought processes change entirely, and considering emotional intelligence is crucial to a child’s proper development, learning a second language may help.  

Source: Fan S, Liberman Z, Keysar B, Kinzler K. The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication. Psychological Science. 2015.