Effects Of Gender And Bilingualism
The idea that being bilingual gives people an advantage on cognitive functions has gained more popularity throughout the years . Be as it may, the specific cognitive advantages of bilingualism seem to be hard to pinpoint. Some studies that focused on the advantages of bilingualism on facets of executive control, and many of these pointed out how inhibition and “shifting” play important parts (Bialystok & Viswanathan, 2009).
Nonetheless, little research has been conducted on the relevance of bilingualism on working memory (WM), and even less research has been done for gender differences effects on WM, and in both cases, results tend to be mixed. The present study aims to find a link between the two factors, and the effects they have on WM, by analysing data collected out of 50 participants who took part in an N-back task. The results of the analysis points out a nonsignificant relation between the factors, and the reasons could be multiple, but a possible one could be that bilingual and gender advantages has benefits on some aspects of the cognitive control such as focused attention, updating, switching (Miller & Cohen, 2001, Miyake et al., 2000), but not on others, such as WM.
Speaking two languages correctly requires a bilingual subject to exercise a high level of cognitive control (Green 1998; Abutalebi 2008; Christoffels, Kroll, Bajo 2013). It would b precisely this need to manage the simultaneous activation of the two languages, which would train the brains of bilingual individuals to engage the executive control system in a more efficient way (Abutalebi 2008; Bialystok 2009)
This particular advantage of bilinguals has been confirmed both in bilinguals who have acquired their second language at an early age and in those who have acquired their second language in post-adolescent age, even if with qualitatively different manifestations (Tao, Marzecová, Taft, Asanowicz et al. 2011). Unraveling the different components of executive functions influenced by linguistic processing in bilinguals, however, is not an easy task. Many pieces of research on bilingualism and executive control have concentrated in the past (Bialystok, 2001) on the possible roles of inhibition and shifting (i.e. the ability to pass from one language to another quickly). However, few studies have investigated the role of WM and how it is modified by bilingual linguistic experience.
WM is considered as one of the most important components of executive functions. It is crucial in many cognitive abilities and is involved in tasks in which subjects must ignore interference, resist distractions, or resolve conflicts in information processing. The development of WM capacity is considered as one of the most important factors of cognitive development (Jarrold 2007). The WM is defined in many ways depending on whether the topic is about humans or animals. For Baddeley (1992, 1999), WM is a ‘brain system that provides temporary storage and manipulation of information necessary for complex cognitive tasks such as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning’.
According to him, the WM can be divided in a central executive who has control over three storage buffers: the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad, and the episode buffer. Baddeley, along with others (e.g. Shimamura 2000), sees executive control as a series of processes involved in the selection, activation, and manipulation of information in WM. At the same time, there is a good amount of documentation regarding gender differences in spatial ability, but all of it seems to not be understood in full, if not at all. To see whether WM is an important factor in these differences, Kaufman (2007) conducted a study where 50 males and 50 females performed tests of three-dimensional mental rotation and spatial visualisation, along with tests of spatial and verbal WM, but no significant differences were found concerning WM alone.
The elaboration, involving both storage and the simultaneous processing of spatial representations, fits loosely with current conceptions of WM (Miyake & Shah, 1999). In a brain activation study conducted by Speck et al. 2000, a WM task showed more bilateral activation in males, versus overall left hemisphere activation in females. This study gives insight on how different brain structure could be playing a role in short term memory, and consequentially, on WM differences between male population versus the female population.
Nonetheless, only a handful of studies have found sex differences WM (Duff and Hampson, 2001, Geiger and Litwiller, 2005, Vecchi and Girelli, 1998), but they did not give any definitive explanation on the link between WM and gender differences. Even though some of these experimental designs, including one used by Shah and Miyake (1996) would have given a great insight to the question “Does gender influence our WM capacity?”, all of them tend to have problematics that make it difficult to answer to the question definitively.
The major aim of this study is to find a link between the two variables cited (gender differences and bilingualism) and their effect on WM, but also to contribute to a growing literature on the subject.
Participants have been presented with a complete debriefing in what the tasks and questionnaire asks. Participants have also been debriefed in fully on details of the research. They signed a consent form where they could find the contact details of the researchers and seminar leader of this coursework, to ensure any further questions could be answered in full if any arise. Ethical guidelines of confidentiality and anonymity were followed. The ethical form has been approved by the seminar leader of this coursework.
A central aim of this report was to investigate whether WM capacity is affected by sex differences or bilingualism. To be able to answer that question, the researchers opted to test the WM of 50 individuals with an N-back task. The results of the N-Back Task are particularly interesting because the N-Back Task directly evaluates the capabilities of the WM, and is often used to measure the updating functions of the memory. The updating function requires the monitoring and coding of information arriving relevant to the task of the moment to appropriately revise the items held in the WM, replacing old information that is no longer relevant with the new and more relevant information (Miyake et al. 2000).
Although the n-back task was not specifically used in studies investigating WM in bilinguals, it is a paradigm widely used in the neuroimaging literature (Owen, McMillan, Laird, Bullmore 2005), in which it was expressly used for measure WM and executive functions. These studies found a correlation between the updating function and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the presumed site of important executive processes (Jonides, Smith 1997; Owen et al. 2005). The results of the present work with the n-back are controversial. Jaeggi et al. (2010) in a review that studied the psychometric properties of the n-back and its relations with WM, found that it is useful in experimental research on WM; despite this, the authors have shown that this test has a poor reliability regarding individual differences while it predicts inter-individual differences in cognitive functions such as fluid intelligence, especially when measured with high load levels.
In this study, the monolingual group does not differ from the bilingual group in measures WM capacity. It is not clear therefore if the result of then-back in the present study is calling into question aspects of the updating capacity of the WM or it is due to the fluid intelligence in conditions of high load, as proposed by Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Perrig, and Meir (2010). This demarcation will be investigated in future research. One possible explanation is that the ability to control interference in information processing often found in bilingual children is involved. This ability to resist distractions or interferences has been found in bilingual children from different studies (e.g. Bialystok 2009) and could be attributed to the need to inhibit one language while using the other. The underlying dynamics requires attention control to be able to select the relevant information.
Our results, although preliminary and part of a larger study on the effects that bilingualism could have on the functions of WM, can be considered compatible with what is proposed by Morales et al. (2013) on the possible beneficial effects on WM in bilingual individuals and their strengthening effects when there are high demands or demands on executive functions. Furthermore, the present study has raised interesting questions that can be developed in future work, which in particular will explore in more detail and with more numerous samples the specific role different types of WM might play in bilingual cognitive advantages, while also focusing on gender differences.
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