Cognitive benefits of bilingualism might have been overstated

A new study done by Minna Lehtonen and her research group at the Department of Psychology at Åbo Akademi University shows that bilingualism does not seem to increase the cognitive skills related to executive functions in adult bilinguals.

According to Lehtonen, “Active use of two languages and switching between languages has been believed to train these functions, but our comprehensive overview of the entire existing research does not support this statement”.

Their study consisted of a meta-analysis of a total of 152 studies focusing on bilingual and monolingual adults. The participants were judged on their performance in tasks that measured different areas of executive functions.

Studies like this one had also been preformed in 27 other countries where bilingualism takes many forms. In all of these studies according to Lehtonen and her team, no significant benefits were found for bilinguals in sub-areas of executive functions.

Factors that were specifically looked at included age of acquisition of the second language, the age of participant, and the language pair. According to Lehtonen, the results indicate that bilingualism or active use of another language does not improve executive functions in healthy adults.

You are more likely to deny the truth in your second language

This article written by Manon Jones and Ceri Ellis tells us that the perception of truth is slippery when viewed through different languages and cultures. This occurs so much that someone who speaks two languages can accept a fact in one language, while denying it in the other.

According to the authors, bilingual people often report that they feel different while switching from one language to another. The change in language goes hand-in-hand with perceptual, cognitive and emotional trends. Research shows that language is linked to experiences and helps shape the way we process information.

Psychology experiments have also shown that languages shape aspects of our visual perception, the way we categorize objects in our environment, and even the way we perceive events. This is basically saying that our sense of reality is constructed by the confines of the language we speak, according to the authors.

In the research done by Jones and Ellis, bilinguals interpreted facts differently depending on the language they were presented with, and depending on whether the fact made them feel good or bad about their native culture. This is important because until recently it was assumed that one’s understanding of meaning was shared across all the languages one speaks.

Jones and Ellis asked Welsh-English bilinguals- who had spoken Welsh since birth and considered themselves culturally Welsh- to rate sentences as true or false. The sentences had either a positive or negative cultural connotation, and were factually either true or false. The participants were asked to read them in both English and Welsh, they were asked to categories each one, and were attached to electrodes to record the implicit interpretation of each sentence.

The researchers found that in Welsh participants tended to be less biased and more truthful, and therefore they often correctly identified some unpleasant statements as true. In English, their bias resulted in a surprising defensive reaction: they denied the truth of unpleasant statements, therefore they would categorize them as false even when they were true.

This research showed the way in which language interacts with emotions trigger asymmetric effects on the participants interpretations of facts. They found that while participants’ native language is closely tied to their emotions – which perhaps comes with greater honesty and vulnerability – their second language was associated with more distant, rational thinking. These findings were reassured through the brain activity measures- because functioning in the second language appeared to protect them against unpalatable truths, and deal with them more strategically.

See full article here:

Bilingualism could offset brain changes in Alzheimer’s

This Concordia University study focused specifically on the effects of knowing a second language for patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI; at risk for AD).  Their study is innovative because previous studies had only focused on healthy young or healthy older adults.

According to Natalie Philips, a professor in the Department of Psychology, “having two languages exercises specific brain regions, can increase cortical thickness and grey matter density”.  The proof of this can be seen through the structural differences seen in the brains of multilingual AD and MCI patients.

This study was distinct from others because it was the first to use MRI data and sophisticated analysis techniques to measure cortical thickness and density of the tissues with specific brain areas. Phillips believes their study is the first to “assess the structure of MCI and AD patients language and cognition control regions,” as well as the first to make an association between those regions of the brain and memory function in these groups of people.

The results from Phillips study contribute to previous research that indicated speaking more than one language is one of many factors that contribute to cognitive reserve. The research supports the notion that multilingualism and its associated cognitive and sociocultural benefits are associated with brain plasticity, according to Phillips.

This study also suggests that multilingual people are able to compensate for AD-related tissue loss by accessing alternative networks of other brain regions for memory processing, stated by Phillips.

Click to access Duncan_et_al_2018.pdf

University of Ottawa study suggests Frenglais isn’t weakening French

Shana Poplack is a linguistic professor at the University of Ottawa who studied hundreds of Frenglais speakers to reach her conclusion; incorporating English into French language indeed has no negative impact on the language like most people in Canada had thought.

According to Poplack, research shows that many of the concerns people have about hybrid languages don’t hold up over the long term. In her study, she examined millions of words from speakers of Quebec French, as far back as 1846, and found that most of the borrowed ones simply disappear after their first mention.

According to Poplack, research has found that when English words do become part of the language they don’t permanently alter the fundamentals of the language. This means that when people borrow words, they ‘strip’ them of the grammatical properties that they come with.

In the case of French and English, “English words are treated just like any other French word, so mixing them has no effect on the grammatical core of the language,” according to Poplack. She said the reason she chose to study languages that blend together, specifically in Canada was because it is a bilingual country, where people speak French and English and they sometimes mix them. Poplack also said that she studies how people manage to mix the languages together and still maintain coherent sentences.

According to the article there are two basic ways in which bilinguals mix languages. The first is when the speaker is taking the word from the other language and incorporating it into the borrowing language. The other type of mixing is called code switching, which is basically an alternating between stretches of the two languages in use.

Poplack concluded by saying that the English being spoken in Frenglais is less that one per cent of all vocabulary being used. Therefore, the English words being used aren’t invading the language, in fact they are quite rare and are not bringing their grammatical properties with them.

Bilingualism May Aid Autistic Children

According to the author, Rick Nauert PhD, new research suggests that being bilingual may help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) shift tasks. This is important because it is a skill that is often difficult for children with autism.

This finding was also important, according to Canadian researchers, because it could suggest that being bilingual may offer cognitive advantages.

The senior author of the paper was Professor Aparna Nadig, from the School of communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. This study also appeared in the journal Child Development.

According to Nadig, “Over the past 15 years there has been a significant debate in the field about whether there is a ‘bilingual advantage’ in terms of executive functions,”. Researchers have argued that living as a bilingual person and having to switch languages unconsciously to respond to the linguistic context in which the communication is taking place increases cognitive flexibility, according to Nadig.

The most exciting part of these findings is that no research before had clearly demonstrated the advantages of bilingualism that may also extend to children with autism spectrum.

In the study, the researchers arrived to their conclusions after comparing how easily 40 children between the ages of six and nine, with or without ASD, who were either monolingual or bilingual, were able to shift tasks in a computer-generated test. There were 10 children in each category. The children were asked to short a single object appearing on a computer screen by color, and were then asked to switch and sort the same object instead by their shape. The researchers found that bilingual children with ASD preformed significantly better in the more complex portion of the task-shifting test relative to children with ASD who were monolingual. However, researchers believe there needs to be more sound evidence before advising this to families, since families with ASD children are often advice to not expose their children to more than once language because it could worsen their language difficulties.

According to Nauert, despite the small sample size, the researchers believe that the “bilingual advantage” they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications and should be studied further. The researchers plan to follow the children with ASD that were tested in the study for the next three to five years and see how they have developed. They want to see if the advantages they observed in the lab could also be observed in the daily life of the  bilingual children as they age.

See full article here:

Bilingualism: What happens in the brain?

According to this article, bilingualism is on the rise in the United States. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of people over the age of 5 that speak a language other than English at home (20.7 percent) has more than doubled since 1980, where it was at 9.6 percent. With the rising number for bilingual people, there also comes an increase in research into the science of this skill. Questions that come up are: “Do the brains of bilinguals differ from those of monolinguals?” “And do bilinguals have the edge over monolinguals when it comes to cognitive functioning and learning new languages? “. The author of this article sought out to answer some of these questions.

The author, Yella Hewings-Martin PhD gives examples of dispelling myths; one of those being that mixing languages holds bilingual children back from learning both languages. However, children do not lag behind monolinguals when it comes to language development. In fact, according to Hewings-Martin, children are capable of developing vocabulary in two languages without being confused. When they do mix words from different languages in once sentence, this is known as code-switching and it is not because children cannot tell which word belongs to which language.

According to the author, once a bilingual person hears words in one language, the other language is also activated. Scientists believe that the brains of bilinguals adapt to the constant conversation of two languages, and this is how their brains are different than those of monolinguals. The author pulls together a series of studies and on going investigations into the benefits of bilingualism. Research gathered shows that different areas of the brain are needed to cope with phonological competition from within the same language, compared with between language competition.  Since there is competition between the two languages, bilinguals require additional frontal control and in subcortical regions.

Another benefit stated through research from the author, indicates attributes to cognitive health since attention control is a central aspect of cognitive health that tends to decline with age, however, boots in the attention systems through bilingualism have potential to sustain cognitive function in older age. This is developed through the ongoing used of attention needed to manage selection between two jointly-activated languages. Task switching was also addressed in the article because research results done in one study indicated that bilinguals were faster at disengaging their attention from one trial so that they could focus on the next trial when a different response was required.

Finally, in the last piece of evidence presented by the author, it has to do with electroencephalogram analysis and how researchers found a clear difference in the brain waves of both monolingual and bilingual students when listening to sentences in the language chosen for the study: Brocato2. This small study indicated that there was novel brain-based data point towards a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grew up bilingual. Over all the research done by the author reaffirms the importance of bilingualism of all kinds of languages as well as the differences in those who and bilingual compared to those who are not.

See full article here:

The joys and benefits of bilingualism

The article describes how a man and his wife move their children from England, where the children were raised, back to their home land, Italy. There the author explains how the children must try to become fully bilingual in both English and Italian.

When the children were younger, growing up in England, they used to speak Italian but because their mother wanted to assimilate them into the English world, the children lost their ability to speak the language although they were still able to understand it. The father, who is the author of the article talks about how their personalities have changed as they relearn the language (Italian), and how interesting it is to see these changes when they speak and in how they act.

Jones briefly talks about bilingualism and how it has changed peoples opinions over the years. Until recent years, bilingualism was seen as bad because it was considered to be “deleterious to development”, and it was also thought to “impede integration at school and probably lead to academic regression and confusion,”. Later, according to Jones, some studies concluded and proved the complete opposite. What emerged, through hundreds of experiments, was the notion that rather than having two different “pockets” containing French and English, the bilingual’s brain had one huge holdall for both, according to Jones.

Along with this, other research arose about the ability to empathize through the acquisition of more than one language. It was obvious to the author that if a bilingual is habitually changing their language to accommodate the interlocutor and their context, the bilinguals inevitably going to be used to taking into account other people’s abilities and points of view. Jones goes on to name other benefits and studies that have shown that speaking a secondary language has been and is beneficial for those who speak it, and how he has seen this first hand with his children.

However, Jones knows that not everyone is on board when it comes to bilingualism. Nationalists see it as a bad thing, calling “code-switching” traitorous.  In recent years, certain separatist movements have assiduously promoted their own tongue and, inadvertently or deliberately, reduced the use of another. The author also touches base on the differences between languages, and how he finds it hard to think in one language and speak in another, because there are usually no equivalent phrases or words to the ones he knows in English, and so he cannot translate them directly into Italian.

He ends by saying that, the hypothesis – known also as “linguistic relativism” – surely points to a truth: that the more languages we know, the more agile our conceptual thinking will be. He says that when someone learns a new language they not only learn new words, or sounds, but new notions. This is what he has witnessed first hand with his children. Jones compares this to putting on new glasses to be able to see the world with different eyes. Through this acquisition of different languages, one is able to then gain a different perspective on the world.


Bilingual Children have a Two-Tracked Mind

The article, written by Ithaca College focuses on a hypothesis that ‘(if) bilingual children  differ in their productions between languages, they will nevertheless maintain a similar level of overall approximation,’ according to Freedman. According to this article, this hypothesis was confirmed due to a study done using English-Hungarian bilingual children. However, this hypothesis has never been tested in Spanish, which is surprising considering it is the fastest-growing language currently in the United States and therefore was tested in this article.

Freedman’s study compared the languages productions of five English-Spanish bilingual children during a picture-naming task, to the production of five English-only and five Spanish-only speaking children. Through these results, Freedman was able to confirm his hypothesis. He found that bilingual children produce more complex forms in Spanish than in English. However, they approximated English and Spanish to the same degree. In addition to this, Freedman found that there was no production differences between bilingual children and the children who only spoke on language, indicating a sufficient amount of independence between a bilingual child’s two sound systems. According to Freedman, the finding in this study make a case against “not exposing children to more than one language at birth because they might be confused or overwhelmed,” since the bilingual children in this study managed to learn two sets of words at the same time and keep those two systems separate, thus proving that they can keep the sound systems separate.

See full article here:



Bilingual babies: Study shows how exposure to a foreign language ignites infants’ learning

According to the author, Deborah Bach,  scientists and parents alike have touted the benefits of introducing babies to two languages. According to this article, bilingual experience has been shown to improve cognitive abilities, specifically problem-solving.  The question this article asks is the following: how can babies in monolingual households develop skills that infants raised in a bilingual home do?

A new study by I-LABS researchers, published July 17 in Mind, Brain, and Education, is one of the first to investigate how babies can learn a second language outside of the home. Therefore, this study sought to answer the question: ‘Can babies be taught a second language if they don’t get foreign language exposure at home, and if so, what kind of foreign language exposure, and how much, is needed to spark that learning?’

The study was taken to and conducted in Madrid, Spain. Here, an English-language method, curriculum and implementing took place in Madrid’s public education system, where researchers were able to enroll 280 infants and children from families of varying income levels. Based on I-LABS research, methods emphasized in this study were social interactions, play, and high quality and quantity of language from the teachers. These approaches included “infant-directed speech”, a style used by parents to talk to their babies, which includes simpler grammar, higher and exaggerated pitch, and drawn-out vowels. According to their research this type of approach helps babies learn language.

Babies in the study, ages 7-33.5 months were given one hour of English sessions a day for 18 weeks, while the control group received the Madrid schools standard bilingual program. According to Bach, both groups of children were tested in Spanish and English at the start and end of the 18 weeks. The children also wore special vests with lightweight recorders to record their English learning. The recordings were analyzed to determine how many English words and phrases each child spoke.

The study found that by the end of the 18 weeks, the children in the program out-performed the children in the control group in English comprehension and production. Thus the findings in this study suggest  that even babies from monolingual homes can develop bilingual abilities at an early age with the right science-based approach that combines the features known to grow children’s language. It is possible to give very young children the opportunity to start learning a second language, according to Ferjan Ramirez.

Follow-up testing 18 weeks later showed the children had retained what they learned. The English gains were similar between children attending the two schools serving predominantly low-income neighborhoods and the two serving mid-income areas, suggesting that wealth was not a significant factor in the infants’ ability to learn a foreign language. Children’s native language (Spanish) continued to grow as they were learning English, and was not negatively affected by introducing a second language, according to Bach.

According to the author the information provided has the potential to transform how early language instruction is approached in the United States and worldwide.


Learning a foreign language a ‘must’ in Europe, not so in America

Kat Devlin writes a quick article on the stereotypical American tourist, one who is at a loss when it comes to coping with any language other than English. This could be largely in part because students in the U.S are not required to learn another language while growing up. On the other hand in Europe, students are required to learn multiple languages in the classroom before becoming teens, according to Devlin.

According the a 2012 report from Eurostat, starting to study a second language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries and is done so between the ages of 6 and 9. However, the starting ages range from country to country as well as the second language being introduced. This study did find that English was the most-studied foreign language all across Europe at all education levels and this can be seen in countries that require students to learn English as well as schools who do not enforce that requirement. The second most popular languages being studied across Europe are French and German, followed by Spanish and Russian, and all other languages making up about 5% in most countries.

In the United States however, nationwide foreign-language is not mandated at any level of education, according to Devlin. States are able to establish language requirements in high schools and primary schools but there are very low rates of even offering foreign-language courses. Devlin suggests that it is perhaps because of these standards, few Americans who claim to speak a non-English language say that they acquired those skills in school. Most of these multilinguals, 89% said they acquired these skills in their childhood home , with only 7% reporting that school was their main setting for language acquisition and thus affirming Devlin’s suggestion.