Smarter Kids From Smarter Cities Start With Diverse Neighbourhoods

Babies who hear a variety of different languages outside their home may be more willing to learn from people who don’t speak their native language, a new study in the journal Cognition finds.

The study examined a total of 82 babies from the Chicago and Washington D.C., areas, all of whom spoke exclusively English at home. The researchers, from the University of Chicago, determined the diversity of languages spoken in the neighbourhoods where the 19-month-olds lived using data from the U.S. Census. A series of experiments tested how well the English-speaking toddlers would learn from and imitate adults who spoke a language different from their own.


For instance, in one test, a set of infants observed an English-speaking or Spanish-speaking adult showing them how to use a toy. In another, the infants saw both speakers demonstrating how to use the same toy in different ways—one turning a light on with her head, while the other one used an elbow. When the babies were let loose on the toys themselves, the researchers observed that the infants from more diverse neighborhoods were more likely to take cues from the Spanish-speaking adults than the infants who lived in less diverse areas.

This indicates that growing up in a diverse neighborhood helps counteract the bias many people—both children and adults—develop against interacting with people who are different from them. Babies learn about the world through observing and imitating others, and being able to take cues from diverse sources broadens the social learning experiences those infants are exposed to. In the words of researcher Amanda Woodword, it “may keep children open to opportunities to learn from and interact with diverse social partners.”

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Though this study was fairly small and didn’t actually control for how often the infants in diverse neighbourhoods hear languages other than English, it does provide further evidence that urban segregation, still very much alive in American cities, is a wasted opportunity. More diverse cities aren’t just better for the economy, they’re better for kids, too.


This article originally appeared in Fast Company.

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