Research rules out mental flexibility, attention as advantages for some bilingual children

Summary: While learning a second language has positive benefits for children, there is little evidence that bilingual children have more advanced executive function or improved attention over those who are monolingual.

Source: Florida International University

For more than 20 years, research has suggested children who are bilingual have an advantage when it comes to executive functions, which are the cognitive processes that have to do with managing behaviors and attention. But researchers at the FIU Center for Children and Families say that is not the case for American 9- and 10-year-olds.

“In one of the largest studies to date addressing this question, we failed to find consistent evidence for a bilingual advantage for executive function,” said FIU psychologist and lead author Anthony Dick.

Executive function is responsible for self-monitoring, paying attention, organizing and planning, initiating and completing tasks, and regulating behavior. While parents shouldn’t look to bilingualism as a way to create an advantage for executive function, knowing a second language does offer other benefits including better family relationships, improved cross-cultural communication and in some cases enhanced economic opportunities.

“Although our study indicated slightly lower English vocabulary for bilingual children, I think the benefits to learning a second language far outweigh any of the costs,” Dick said. “Parents should take advantage of opportunities for their children to learn a second language and should continue practices that promote language development more generally, such as reading nightly with their children.”

This shows a multicolored brain

While parents shouldn’t look to bilingualism as a way to create an advantage for executive function, knowing a second language does offer other benefits including better family relationships, improved cross-cultural communication and in some cases enhanced economic opportunities. The image is credited to Florida International University.

Using data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD) — the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States — researchers evaluated a demographically representative sample of 4,524 children ages 9 and 10 across the United States. While they were able to replicate some findings related to language development, when they investigated whether there were additional advantages across executive function tasks, they failed to find any evidence favoring bilingual children. They suggested prior findings showing a bilingual advantage might have been due to chance because smaller numbers of children were investigated in those studies.

Results from the current study point to opportunities for further research into ways to mitigate the deficiencies. Dick explains that future research may identify specific circumstances where a bilingual advantage in executive function may be present in some children and determine if the current results apply to a broader range of ages.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Florida International University
Media Contacts:
Ayleen Barbel Fattal – Florida International University
Image Source:
The image is credited to Florida International University.

Original Research: Closed access
“No evidence for a bilingual executive function advantage in the nationally representative ABCD study”. Anthony Steven Dick, Nelcida L. Garcia, Shannon M. Pruden, Wesley K. Thompson, Samuel W. Hawes, Matthew T. Sutherland, Michael C. Riedel, Angela R. Laird & Raul Gonzalez .
Nature Human Behaviour. doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0609-3

Abstract

No evidence for a bilingual executive function advantage in the nationally representative ABCD study

Learning a second language in childhood is inherently advantageous for communication. However, parents, educators and scientists have been interested in determining whether there are additional cognitive advantages. One of the most exciting yet controversial findings about bilinguals is a reported advantage for executive function. That is, several studies suggest that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals on tasks assessing cognitive abilities that are central to the voluntary control of thoughts and behaviours—the so-called ‘executive functions’ (for example, attention, inhibitory control, task switching and resolving conflict). Although a number of small and large-sample studies have reported a bilingual executive function advantage , there have been several failures to replicate these findings and recent meta-analyses have called into question the reliability of the original empirical claims. Here we show, in a very large, demographically representative sample (n = 4,524) of 9- to 10-year-olds across the United States, that there is little evidence for a bilingual advantage for inhibitory control, attention and task switching, or cognitive flexibility, which are key aspects of executive function. We also replicate previously reported disadvantages in English vocabulary in bilinguals. However, these English vocabulary differences are substantially mitigated when we account for individual differences in socioeconomic status or intelligence. In summary, notwithstanding the inherently positive benefits of learning a second language in childhood18, we found little evidence that it engenders additional benefits to executive function development.

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