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Daily RC Article 100

Unpacking the Bilingual Advantage: A Complex Cognitive Landscape


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Theoretically, speaking multiple languages may actually confer distinct advantages to the developing brain. Bilinguals do better in qualities like sustained attention and switching between tasks effectively. …

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In 2012, Angela de Bruin, a bilingual, pursued the link between bilingualism and cognition. Normally, to test for an edge in executive function, you give a version of a task where people have to ignore certain stimuli while selectively focussing on others. For instance, in the Simon task, you are shown pictures (often arrows) on either the left or right side of a screen. If you see a right-pointing arrow, you press the right key. It doesn’t matter on which side of the screen the arrow appears but only the direction in which it points. Typically, people have faster reaction times on congruent trials – when the right-pointing arrow actually appears on the right, and vice-versa. Bilinguals are supposed to have an advantage in the incongruent trials: when the left arrow appears on the right, and the right arrow appears on the left.

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When de Bruin looked at the data, though, in three of the four tasks testing inhibitory control, including the Simon task, the advantage wasn’t there. Monolinguals and bilinguals had performed identically. “We thought, maybe the existing literature is not a full, reliable picture of this field,” she said. So, she combed through conference abstracts from 169 conferences that dealt with bilingualism and executive control. About half the presented results provided either complete or partial support for the bilingual advantage on certain tasks, while half provided partial or complete refutation.

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De Bruin isn’t refuting the notion that there are advantages to being bilingual. But the advantage is neither global nor pervasive. To test where the limits of bilingual advantage lie, and what the real advantage may actually look like, they examined three different groups (English monolinguals, active English-Gaelic bilinguals who spoke Gaelic at home, and passive English-Gaelic bilinguals who no longer used Gaelic regularly). They had each group take part in four tasks – the Simon task, a task of everyday attention, the Tower of London, and a simple task-switching paradigm (you see circles and squares that are either red or blue, and must pay attention to either one color or one shape, depending on the part of the trial).

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In the first three tasks, they found no difference between the groups. On the last, they thought they’d finally detected an advantage: on the switch trials – the trials immediately after a change from shape to color or color to shape – the bilinguals, both active and passive, seemed to be quicker. But on digging deeper, they found that it wasn’t so much a case of switching faster as it was being slower at the non-switch trials, where shape followed shape and color followed color.

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So is there no such thing as a bilingual advantage? No. It’s just one study. But it adds further evidence to the argument that the bilingual advantage is sometimes overstated. “I’m definitely not saying there’s no bilingual advantage,” de Bruin says. But the advantage may be different from the way many researchers have described it: as a phenomenon that helps children to develop their ability to switch between tasks and, more broadly, enhances their executive-control functions.

The article explores the perceived advantages of bilingualism on cognitive abilities, specifically executive functions. Research challenges the widespread belief in a universal bilingual advantage, showcasing mixed results in various studies examining inhibitory control and task-switching. A recent study found no conclusive evidence supporting a consistent bilingual advantage across tasks, suggesting a need for a more nuanced understanding of how bilingualism impacts cognitive functions like task-switching and executive control.
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