Second Languages: Cognitive Benefits in Childhood
Here is a list of new research that suggests that learning a second language in childhood has cognitive benefits, even into adulthood and old age. Each source has a citation, and the References list has URLs for each citation so readers can get some access to the original research.
NOTE: There is a big list of research at this website that shows some advantages to learning a second language. However, a lot of that research is really old (some of it older than me). The problem is that a lot of the older research on bilingual students has been contradicted by newer stuff. So check out that website, but I’ll try to compile some newer sources so your website is more cutting edge.
- There is some evidence that bilingual children have enhanced executive functioning (also known as cognitive control).
- Executive functioning is defined as the ability to manage, regulate, and control cognitive processes (such as memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving).
- In plain English, people with high executive functioning are better able to organize their memories, reason, and solve problems.
- WHY? Because knowing two languages requires a child to learn how to navigate their world in two ways, to switch between languages, and pay attention to details that indicate what language they should be speaking.
- Recent research that supports this: Alejandra Calvo and Ellen Bialystok at York University in Canada (2013) found better executive functioning in bilingual children. Note: in this study, it was also found that bilingual children did more poorly in vocabulary, but this is pretty much what you’d expect – if you have to speak two separate languages, the number of words you know in each language will be smaller.
- Research has also shown that these benefits are not limited to children: adults who learn a second language have similar boosts in executive function (Pelham & Abrams, 2014).
Peggy Goetz at Calvin College in 2003 found evidence that bilingual children have an advantage in “Theory of Mind” development. “Theory of Mind” is what psychologists call the ability to see things from others’ perspectives and predict the behavior of others.
- Here’s how one part of the experiment works (I think this is pretty cool):
- Children were shown a box of M&Ms and asked, “What do you think is in the box?” The children answered how you’d expect them to: M&Ms!
- Then, the box was opened and there was a toy car inside the box. The box was closed again.
- The children were then asked, “Your friend hasn’t seen inside this box. What will he/she say is inside before he/she opens it? Will he/she say there is candy or a car inside?”
- Younger children have a harder time seeing things from the perspective of their friend. They are more likely to respond that their friend will say there is a toy car inside the box. This shows that younger children have a hard time understanding that the friend’s knowledge is different from their own knowledge.
- However, bilingual children have an advantage in this task, showing that they have an enhanced ability in seeing things from the perspective of another person who has had different experiences than their own.
This may be related to enhanced executive functioning, which is related to being able to take into account the perspectives of others (Fizke, Barthel, Peters, & Rakoczy, 2014).
- START THEM EARLY: One study found that early second-language learners (those who began learning a second language by age 3) had better attentional monitoring abilities than monolingual speakers or those who learned a language later in life. Attentional monitoring is defined as “the ability to respond to changing task demands.” In plain language, this is the ability to quickly switch back and forth between different tasks with different rules (Kapa & Colombo, 2013).
- NOTE: The positive psychological benefits of learning a second language seem to emerge gradually. In a lot of this research, older bilingual children and adults show the greatest advantage compared to younger bilingual children. This means that we shouldn’t expect to see astonishing results right away. Much of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are the result of many years of gaining mastery in multiple languages.
Second Languages: Cognitive Benefits in Adulthood
Protection from Aging
- Don’t believe this one? The brain is largely composed of two types of matter, called gray matter and white matter. As people age, they slowly lose the gray and white matter in their brains. We all know that there are effects of aging on the way we think and remember.
- However, one study, published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging in 2014, found that gray matter volume loss in bilingual speakers was significantly less than the loss found in monolingual speakers (Abutalebi, Canini, Della Rosa, Sheung, Green, & Weekes, 2014). Another study found that bilingual adults had less white matter loss than monolingual adults (Gold, Johnson, & Powell, 2013). In other words, knowing a second language may keep your brain healthier, longer.
- Learning a second language may even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related mental impairment (Bialystok, Craik, Binns, Ossher, & Freedman, 2014).
Random fact: I also found that children who are musically trained tend to learn languages better! The theory is that children who are trained to listen to the differences between musical sounds are better able to hear subtle differences in spoken language. Not sure how you can use that fact, but here’s the reference: Shook, Marian, Bartolotti, & Schroeder, 2013.
Abutalebi, J., Canini, M., Della Rosa, P. A., Sheung, L. P., Green, D. W., & Weekes, B. S. (2014). Bilingualism protects anterior temporal lobe integrity in aging. Neurobiology of Aging. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24721820
Bialystok, E., Craik, F. M., Binns, M. A., Ossher, L., & Freedman, M. (2014). Effects of bilingualism on the age of onset and progression of MCI and AD: Evidence from executive function tests. Neuropsychology, 28(2), 290-304. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24245925
Calvo, A., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Independent effects of bilingualism and socioeconomic status on language ability and executive functioning. Cognition, 130(3), 278-288. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24374020
Fizke, E., Barthel, D., Peters, T., & Rakoczy, H. (2014). Executive function plays a role in coordinating different perspectives, particularly when one’s own perspective is involved. Cognition, 130(3), 315-334. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24374211
Goetz, P. J. (2003). The effects of bilingualism on theory of mind development. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 6(1), 1-15. https://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1366728903001007
Gold, B. T., Johnson, N. F., & Powell, D. K. (2013). Lifelong bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve against white matter integrity declines in aging. Neuropsychologia, 51(13), 2841-2846. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24103400
Kapa, L. L., & Colombo, J. (2013). Attentional control in early and later bilingual children. Cognitive Development, 28(3), 233-246. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2013.01.011
Pelham, S. D. & Abrams, L. (2014). Cognitive advantages and disadvantages in early and late bilinguals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(2), 313-325. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24294916
Shook, A., Marian, V., Bartolotti, J., & Schroeder, S. R. (2013). Musical experience influences statistical learning of a novel language. The American Journal of Psychology, 126(1), 95-104. https://www.jstor.org