The Cognitive And Social Benefits Of Bilingualism

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Communication via language is an experience so uniquely human that no other species shares this ability. Language is the tool people use to share their thoughts and feelings, connect with others and understand their environment. Many individuals across the globe experience life through the lens of not one, but two or more languages. The effects of multilingualism on brain structure and function as well as interpersonal communication skills has been widely studied and thus debated. However, these conflicting results make it difficult for parents to decide whether to teach their child a second language. Despite the mixed research, the fact that bilingualism aids in effective communication, an undeniably important skill, outweighs any minor negatives (Fan, Liberman, Keysar, & Kinzler, 2015). Parents should teach their child a second language, as research shows bilingualism results in improved cognitive ability and greater social skills (Bialystok 2009; Fan et al., 2015). In a paper discussing the bilingual experience, Bialystok (2009) provides evidence that bilinguals have enhanced executive functioning and therefore, increased ‘cognitive reserve’. Another research report highlights the impact of bilingualism on social skills, focusing on interpersonal understanding and perspective taking (Fan et al., 2015).

Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes, including memory and attention that develop during childhood and decline with age (Bialystok, Craik & Luk, 2012). Research indicates that bilingual language production relies on executive control functions such as attention and inhibition, due to the coactivation of both languages even when only one is relevant. This coactivation means the individual must constantly inhibit one language in order to focus on the relevant language for the social context (Bialystok, 2009). In the past it was assumed that learning two languages would be confusing to children and the overall consequences would be negative. However, it has now been shown that bilinguals score higher in a multitude of cognitive tests (Bialystok et al., 2012). In an experiment conducted by Bialystok (2009), a comparison between monolingual and bilingual children’s ability to detect grammatical errors, found that bilingual children succeed more often when unhelpful information must be inhibited to reach the correct answer. For example, understanding that the sentence “Apples grow on noses.” is grammatically correct requires ignoring the meaning to pay attention to the grammar (Bialystok, 2009). Another experiment that produced similar results involved testing 4-5 year olds ability to switch tasks by asking them to categorize cards. The results showed that bilingual children could easily switch from sorting by one feature to another, and the monolinguals could not (Bialystok, 2009). These two experiments provide evidence that bilingual children gain effective problem solving skills related to inhibiting misleading information, even nonlinguistic information, earlier in life than their monolingual counterparts (Bialystok, 2009). The researchers suggest that this advantage is due to the everyday language switching that bilinguals experience. This advantage in problem solving and conflict resolution has been demonstrated to continue across the lifespan, through experiments testing a variety of age groups. Also, bilinguals perform better on the Stroop task which is a historically regarded measure for executive functioning ability. Differences in executive functioning, has led to research into the effect of this on cognitive reserve. The idea of cognitive reserve refers to how environmental factors can promote cognitive health throughout aging and pushback the onset of symptoms related to brain decline (Bialystok et al., 2012). Lifelong bilingualism is seen as one of these environmental factors as it has been shown that bilinguals with dementia are diagnosed on average 3-4 years later than monolinguals, despite sharing other influencing factors (Bialystok et al., 2012). Therefore, the extensive use of the executive functioning areas, seen in bilinguals, promotes strength and resistance to disease.

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Along with the cognitive benefits, there is also substantial evidence that bilingual individuals possess more effective communication skills, specifically in understanding others perspectives. An experiment performed by Fan et al (2015), involved testing children’s ability to take someone else's perspective in order to succeed at a task. This study contained three experimental groups, monolinguals, bilinguals and those exposed to a multilingual environment, but who were not bilingual themselves. The experimental procedure involved the participant sitting opposite a “director” who asked them to move objects around a grid, with various objects blocked from the directors view (Fan et al., 2015). The results of this experiment concluded that the children in the bilingual and exposure groups were significantly more likely to succeed than the monolinguals (Fan et al., 2015). This difference highlights the idea that early multilingual exposure enhances interpersonal communication abilities. The researchers suggest this communication advantage cannot be attributed to improved executive functioning as the authors administered a variety of cognitive tests to all three groups, in which the bilinguals scored the highest. However, in the social communication task there was no significant difference between the bilinguals and exposure group (Fan et al., 2015). This means bilingual individuals gain an advantage both socially and cognitively. Although past research has concluded that bilingual individuals control a smaller vocabulary than monolinguals, this study shows that they have stronger communication skills in general, which is clearly of greater benefit (Bialystok, 2009; Fan et al., 2015). As communication is a skill critical for success in many of life's domains, both professionally and personally. The advantage that early bilinguals hold sets them up for lifelong effective communication and preferable social interactions.

As described, there are significant cognitive and social advantages to bilingualism which include enhanced executive functioning, effective communication skills and resistance to symptoms of cognitive decline. For parents every decision regarding their child’s development is important and when bombarded with mixed results, these decisions quickly become overwhelming. However, articles like, “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals”, which summarize relevant research, can provide parents with crucial information in an easily accessible manner (Kinzler, 2016). Based on current research, parents should teach their children a second language, as bilinguals enjoy many positive outcomes that develop early and persist throughout life (Bialystok 2009; Fan et al., 2015). Being raised in a multicultural environment has become the norm in recent years, meaning that the majority of people will experience the social benefits of exposure to these environments, as evidenced by Fan et al (2009). However, along with this social benefit, those whose parents take the extra step in teaching them a second language at a young age, will experience invaluable cognitive advantages that cannot be gained any other way.

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The Cognitive And Social Benefits Of Bilingualism. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-cognitive-and-social-benefits-of-bilingualism/
“The Cognitive And Social Benefits Of Bilingualism.” Edubirdie, 18 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-cognitive-and-social-benefits-of-bilingualism/
The Cognitive And Social Benefits Of Bilingualism. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-cognitive-and-social-benefits-of-bilingualism/> [Accessed 18 Apr. 2024].
The Cognitive And Social Benefits Of Bilingualism [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 18 [cited 2024 Apr 18]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-cognitive-and-social-benefits-of-bilingualism/
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