Do children who speak more than one language score higher on cognitive tests? Yes, according to a new Canadian study. Researchers say that bilingual students develop a deeper understanding of the structure of language, an important skill in learning to read and write.
Cognitive tests study the mental processes that allow us to perform daily functions such as paying attention, solving problems, producing and understanding language appropriately and making decisions.
Does being bilingual make a child smarter? Not necessarily, but previous studies have shown that children who learn two languages from birth are able to concentrate on the meaning of words better than monolingual children and have an advantage in developing multi-tasking skills.
In the Canadian study, researchers compared 104 six-year olds to measure their cognitive development. Some children were English speaking only. Others were Chinese-English bilinguals, French-English bilinguals, and Spanish-English bilinguals.
The experiments investigated the effects of language similarity, cultural background and educational experience on verbal and non-verbal abilities.
The children did a battery of tests that measured verbal development and one non-verbal task that measured executive control, in this case, the ability to focus attention where necessary without being distracted and then shift attention when required. The bilingual children demonstrated a superior ability to switch tasks.
"The results endorse the conclusion that bilingualism itself is responsible for the increased levels of executive control previously reported," the study's authors wrote.
To acquire language, bilingualism where the languages are similar in origin may have slight advantages, the researchers found. For example, Spanish-English bilinguals outperformed Chinese-English bilinguals and monolinguals on a test of awareness of the sound structure of spoken English.
Dr. Ellen Bialystok, one of the world's foremost experts on bilingualism among children, led the group of researchers from York University in analyzing the effects of bilingualism. Summarizing the results, Dr. Bialystok commented, "Our research has shown that reading progress amongst all bilingual children is improved" over monolingual children. In a separate statement, she said, "I think there's a lot of worry out there about other languages conflicting with a child's ability to learn to read in English, but that's absolutely not the case. Parents should not hesitate to share their native tongue with their children—it's a gift."
Because bilingualism is often tied to other factors such as culture, socioeconomic status, immigration history and language, the researchers partly took those into account by enrolling participants who all attended public schools and came from similar socio-economic backgrounds.
During the study, the children learned to read in both languages at the same time. Dr. Bialystok and her team thought that the additional time spent learning two languages might give the children an advantage. But, results showed that the advantages garnered by the children were independent of the instruction time in the other language.
Researchers noted in the online issue of the journal Child Development that "People always ask if the languages themselves matter and now we can definitively say no," study co-author, Dr. Bialystok, said in a release.
Learning a second language teaches children more about their first language. They understand the intricacies of grammar and acquire an additional awareness of how language is used to express thoughts.
The Canadian study was published in the February 8th, online issue of the journal Child Development. The study was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.