The Bilingual And Monolingual Advantages In Working Memory

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Overtime as communities emerged society has adopted different languages. As new languages arise and intertwined so does the need to understand the minds adaptation. Therefore, the bilingual mind has increased its popularity. Specifically, in understanding how the bilingual mind adjusts, and if this adaptation creates and advantage over their monolingual counterparts. It has been hypothesized that bilingual children outperform monolinguals in working memory. Morales, Calvo, and Bialystok (2013) confirmed the bilingual advantage in working memory towards task containing additional executive functioning demands. However, such studies have been inconclusive based on the tasks being observed (Lukasik, Lehtonen, Soveri, Waris, Jylkkä, & Laine, 2018). Here we will conduct a literature review that associates the bilingual advantages in working memory toward external variables other than the concept of being bilingual.

In 2012, there was approximately 20% of the US and Canada population that spoke another language at home other than English (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). Studies have been conducted to try to understand the differences between monolinguals and bilinguals. It has been hypothesized that individuals who speak more than one language have an advantage in working memory over their monolingual counterparts. Working memory is a system responsible for storage and manipulation of information during the performance on complex cognitive tasks, such as language comprehension (Gangopadhyay, Davidson, Ellis Weismer, & Kaushanskaya, 2016). However, the advantages of nonverbal working memory versus working memory have been inconclusive (Lukasik, Lehtonen, Soveri, Waris, Jylkkä, & Laine, 2018).

Morales, Calvo, and Bialystok (2013) conducted two studies to determine the advantages of bilingual individuals over monolingual individuals. The concept was to determine the relationship between working memory and other executive control components. They focused on the complexity of the bilingual switching task phenomenon in the brain by using a simple conditioning and a difficult conditioning response. This required executive control to ignore distractions from a misleading position (Morales, Calvo, & Bialystok, 2013). The goal of this literature review is to evaluate, if any, the advantages bilinguals have over monolinguals in executive control in the context of working memory.

In the beginning, it was assumed that being bilingual would negatively affect a child’s developmental mind (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). Specifically, their ability to recall and organize each language. However, this perception deteriorated when Peal and Lambert tested, French-speaking monolinguals and English French bilinguals, discovering that bilingual children were superior on a test requiring symbol manipulation and reorganization (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). The advantages displayed were on their ability to solve linguistic problems based on understanding such concepts as metalinguistic awareness, the difference between form and meaning, and nonverbal problems that required participants to ignore misleading information (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012).

Likewise, Morales, Calvo, and Bialystok (2013) examined how bilingual children differ between working memory and other executive control components. The study showed that bilingual children had an advantage in working memory as it refers to tasks containing additional executive function demands; such as inhibition and shifting (Morales, Calvo, & Bialystok, 2013). Therefore, pointing out that working memory can be manipulated independently of other executive control (Morales, Calvo, & Bialystok, 2013). On the other hand, on tasks’ that involved verbal processing bilinguals seemed to lack behind their monolingual counterparts (Morales, Calvo, & Bialystok, 2013). Consequently, creating a gap between understanding which executive functions would create the bilingual advantage. Therefore, proposing the need to examine vocabulary and language acquisition.

Alternatively, Gangopadhyay, Davidson, Ellis Weismer, and Kaushanskaya (2016) examined the relationship between non-verbal working memory and morphosyntactic process in monolingual native speakers of English and bilingual speakers of English and Spanish. They focused on morphosyntactic processing and task to measure non-verbal working memory capacity. The analyses revealed that monolinguals were more sensitive to English morphosyntactic information than bilinguals, but the groups did not differ in reaction times or response bias (Gangopadhyay, Davidson, Ellis Weismer, and Kaushanskaya, 2016). Gamgopadhyay et al. (2016) indicated that non-verbal working memory skills link more tightly to syntactic processing in populations with lower levels of language knowledge; therefore, implicating that language-free working memory capacity and syntactic processing are in correlation to linguistic experience. Thereof, focusing again on vocabulary exposure in context within the groups themselves rather than in comparison to each other. Which proposes the question: would education received in each language affect working memory due to the exposure children obtain within the school system?

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At the same time, Bosman and Janssen (2017) investigated the effects between language skills and working memory from low-income Turki-Dutch and Native-Dutch families. Narrowing down on exposure rather than bilingualism per se. The findings revealed that children with better language skills also had a better memory performance (Bosman & Janssen, 2017). Therefore, experience with a particular language (i.e., Dutch) determines, at least partly, the capacity of verbal-working memory in that language (Bosman & Janssen, 2017). Thus, the correlation of bilingualism advantage is based on the proficiency of the primary language rather than the multiple language acquisition.

However, when Lukasik, Lehtonen, Soveri, Waris, Jylkkä, and Laine (2018) addressed the bilingual executive advantages (BEA) the findings were non-significant between the two groups. There was no significant effect on verbal working memory; however, it did affect visuospatial working memory performance (Lukasik et al., 2018). Therefore, pointing out toward the importance of language exposure once the two languages are stored in the brain; since it indicated there were advantages and disadvantages in the verbal domain when compared with monolinguals (Lukasik et al., 2018).

When considering the other variables affecting bilingual advantage such as; disruptive behavior disorders (DBD) and multiple epilepsy. There were no significant differences between bilingual and monolingual children in verbal working memory performance (Garcia, Ros, Hart, & Graziano, 2018). However, Garcia et al. (2018) stated that bilingual children did perform better than monolingual on spatial working memory tasks suggesting that bilingualism may serve as a protective factor for preschoolers with DBD. Nevertheless, in children with multiple epilepsy, there were no significant differences in the remaining executive function variables; but then again, the bilingual advantage persisted in working memory (Veenstra, Riley, Barrett, Muhonen, Zupanc, Romain,… Mucci, 2016).

Lastly, Antón, Carreiras, and Duñabeitia, (2019) focused on the idea that bilingualism advantage does not realm from bilingual but from other uncontrolled factors that consequently matched. The results indicated that bilingualism was not the only factor in working memory enhancement; therefore, associating the findings to socio-demographic factors and memory abilities (Antón, Carreiras, & Duñabeitia, 2019). If that is the case, an individual study would need to be conducted to eliminate external variables such as socio-demographic factors that could inhibit the distinction. Isolating such variables can possibly, if any, narrow down on which factors increases working memory.

We conclude, based on the current evidence, that most studies on bilingualism have focused on comparing bilinguals to monolinguals, with less attention given to individual differences within the bilingual groups (Lukasik et al, 2018). If bilingual linguistic experience enhances executive functioning, we should pay attention to what linguistic experiences are most beneficial within the bilingual population. In addition, observing what variables within the bilingual population trigger executive functions in working memory.

Overall, current studies suggest that bilingualism is not enough to enhance working memory skills. It seems that both groups behaved similarly in all the tasks. Thus, other external factors such as linguistic exposure, socio-demographic factors, and memory abilities are what produces the bilingual advantage (Antón, Carreiras, & Duñabeitia, 2019). Current research supports a slight bilingual advantage over monolinguals; however, a continuation of the current research with the consideration of differences between bilinguals’ external variables will try to clarify the extend of the bilingual advantage.


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