Studies by Katherine Kinzler, a psychology professor at Cornell University, have shown strong links in early childhood between exposure to multiple languages and the ability to consider events from another person's point of view, potentially affecting communication skills. In a recent interview with Robert Siegel on NPR, Professor Kinzler explained the studies' methods and their findings.
To determine these links, Professor Kinzler had adult volunteers sitting across a table from toddlers or young children ask them for an object (a toy car in one study, or a banana in the other). However, there were multiple versions of the same object on the table. It was up to the child to figure out which specific object the grown-up wanted, based on what the adult could see versus what they could see.
Professor Kinzler found that 4-6 year olds who had heard multiple languages at home would reach for the correct object "about 80 percent of the time...knowing that [it] was the one that the adult could see," significantly more often than those children who only heard one language. She also found that "children who were exposed to another language yet were effectively monolingual themselves were just as good as the bilingual children at reaching for" the correct object. Similar abilities appeared among a group of 14-17 month old toddlers, with higher success rates showing among toddlers who had heard multiple languages in their home environments.
As part of the interview, Robert Siegel asked Professor Kinzler why she thought these differences in perspective taking ability appeared. In response to his question, she speculated that "children who hear more than one language have...rich social experiences that monolingual children don't face. And so...these kids do things, like they attend to who speaks which language to whom, when and where different languages are spoken, who understands what content and so forth." But, she says, monolingual parents can still help their children to learn perspective taking in this way by "[finding] an opportunity to expose their children to multiple languages."