[RFHF] In the news: research on bilingualism and cognitive processing

Katie Anderson katie.anderson at state.or.us
Fri Jan 20 09:07:31 PST 2012

Hello!  I just read an excellent article on the benefits of bilingualism: "Leave Los Ninos Alone! The Mental Costs of Linguistic Assimilation" by  Julie Sedivy in Discover magazine online at: http://mblogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2012/01/19/leave-los-ninos-alone-the-mental-costs-of-linguistic-assimilation/

Below are key points I copied and pasted from the article, all except the first one are new to me. I find the last point particularly interesting and relevant to our work. Many early childhood professionals and bilingual parents ask if one method or another is better for teaching children to be bilingual. This new study suggests that compartmentalizing languages, speaking one language at home and another out of the home, may not have the same cognitive benefits as mixing languages and flipping between them throughout the day. Note, this is only one study which means this isn’t a definitive answer to the question and this study does not address the cultural and familial benefits of learning one’s native language.

·         The advantages [of bilingualism] seem to hinge on the cognitive machinery of executive control—mental processes that allow us to switch quickly between tasks or competing information.

·         Bilinguals tend to outperform monolinguals whenever they have to ignore distracting information and focus on some relevant dimension… [because]… bilingual speech, whether it overtly mixes languages or not, is a highly controlled process involving rapid-fire decisions about which words to choose and which ones to suppress.

·         A bilingual advantage for quick attention-shifting has been found in babies as young as seven months, well before these children ever utter their first words in either language.

·         the drawings of bilingual kindergarten-age kids were different from their monolingual peers. …monolingual children were fairly unadventurous… bilingual children… incorporated elements from completely different objects… This kind of cross-category mixing in children’s drawings tends not to occur until kids are about eight years old, putting the bilingual kids on an accelerated timeline for this particular skill.

·         At the far end of the lifespan, bilingualism may help postpone the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease; some bilingual Alzheimer’s populations have shown delays of four to five years in the onset of their symptoms as compared with their monolingual peers.

·         one recent study… compared Mandarin-English bilinguals, Spanish-English bilinguals, and monolingual English speakers living in San Diego… the Spanish-English speakers flipped between their languages on a daily basis. Mandarin-English speakers, on the other hand, kept their language use more compartmentalized. All three groups were given a test in which they had to switch between sorting visual images either by their color or by their shape. Only the Spanish-English bilinguals showed a relative advantage when confronted with a sudden category shift; the Mandarin-English speakers were no different on this score than the monolinguals.

Katie Anderson, Library Development Services
* Youth Services Consultant * Oregon Center for the Book Coordinator *
Oregon State Library, 250 Winter St. NE, Salem, OR 97301
katie.anderson at state.or.us<mailto:katie.anderson at state.or.us>, 503-378-2528
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