In a recent Discovery News Article, Bilingualism Good for the Brain, three points were used to sum up a recent article in Science related to bilingualism.
- “Speaking two or more languages appears to enhance executive function — the ability to focus on the information needed to complete a task.
- Bilinguals with Alzheimer’s disease retained brain function longer than those who spoke only one language.
- The “cost” of bilingualism is that bilinguals may have smaller vocabularies in each language.”
The second point is irrefutable, at least from my position. It concerns a recent test concerning Alzheimer’s in Canada. The third and first are likely true, as well. But, having tracked down the relevant article in Science by Jared Diamond, I did have a problem with the study that was held up as an example of this. Kovács and Mehler had done tests on bilingual versus monolingual pre-linguistic children (think 12-month-olds). Diamond justified studying children this early by saying this:
Actually, infants learn to discriminate the sounds of the language or languages heard around them and to ignore sound distinctions not heard around them. For instance, Japanese infants lose, and English infants retain, the ability to discriminate the liquid consonants l and r, which the Japanese language does not distinguish.
Since I am studying first language acquisition in relation to syllable processing, I wondered what exactly was being studied here: phonetic distinctions or the ability to notice unfamiliar phonotactics? Here are the details of the study, summed up by Diamond:
Kovács and Mehler devised a clever protocol in which infants looked for pictures of a puppet appearing on the left side of the computer screen. The infants were conditioned to anticipate the puppet by first hearing a nonsense trisyllable (e.g., “lo-lo-vu”). Within nine trials, both monolingual and bilingual infants learned to look toward the screen’s left side when they heard that trisyllable. But when Kovács and Mehler changed the rules and made the puppet appear on the screen’s right side after broadcasting a different trisyllable, the “bilingual” infants unlearned their previous lesson and learned the new response within six more trials. In contrast, the “monolingual” infants couldn’t learn the new response even after nine trials. Evidently, shifting frequently and unpredictably between hearing two parental languages made “bilingual” infants better able to cope with other unpredictable rule changes.
Ok, so this is clearly not the /r/ and /l/ distinction, it’s to do with the cognitive abilities to recognise, internalise, and utilise systems. Putting aside the possible issues with using an eye-tracking experiment on one-year olds, the experiment seems to be pretty solid. I had two small problems with it: in the actual test, “infants listened to a trisyllabic speech item while watching a central attention-getter stimulus.” [3, 611] So, that’s merely a word of three syllables, in either AAB or ABA arrangement. But what was the attention-getter? And surely that would mean less attention to the auditory stimuli? The study, in that case, might show, either simultaneously with or instead of the conclusions drawn, that bilingual children are more able to internalise cues in the surrounding environment (if my thinking is correct).
Secondly, “Infants were first exposed to 36 AAB and ABA familiarization trials in pseudo-random order.” [3, 611] This intrigued me because what I wonder, again, is what this study was really diagnosing. I’m not sure that showing a three-syllable pattern, isolated, can really indicate different systems. This study would essentially show the ability for bilingual children to derive statistical analyses of syllable arrangement faster, and thus be able to better recognise variations or predict patterns, but only if one views it as a statistical analysis of syllable arrangement, such as A follows A follows B versus A follows B follows A. But one can’t really do that here, given the paucity of statistical analyses which the children were given. It’s been shown that it takes around, or more than, 3 minutes for children to do statistical analyses of uninterrupted syllable constructions. (The methods used are actually variable as well; that’s what my thesis will be on.) Here, the infants are telling the difference between AAB and ABA – which must be something like spotting infixes versus suffixes (morphology). I wonder if there are different processes (or different variations on the same cognitive process) used to deal with morphology, syntax, phonotactic divisions. If so, then it might be possible that this study only dealt with an isolated occasion, and doesn’t necessarily hold true for general bilingual cognitive abilities. For my suspicion to be tested, however, there would have to be a wider range of systems used in the study. It would also be useful to have a control group of adults. Would bilingual adults score better on this test? Isn’t that the question we’re all asking ourselves, anyway: “Would I think better if I were Bilingual? Would I finish my Sudoku faster?” (Of course, this argument – that the results are not as wide-reaching as they might appear to be – is a favourite of naysayers, me included.)
The answer, at least for me, is who knows. But my hesitancy is, as usual, probably misplaced. The stats do show, in the end, that bilingual children really are better at this. I just wonder how ‘this’ is relevant to anything else.
As always, please shoot away at any holes in my arguments. This article was written in three stages, and I’m not sure that my initial biases didn’t win the day in the end.
- 1. NYT: http://news.discovery.com/human/bilingualism-language-brain-function.html
- 2. E. Bialystok, F.I. Craik, M.Freedman, Neuropsychologia 45, 459 (2007).
- 3. A. M. Kovács, J. Mehler, Science 325, 611(2009).
- 4. A.M. Kovács, J. Mehler, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.106, 6556 (2009).
- 5. Aslin, Richard N. & Jenny R. Saffran, Elissa L. Newport. Computation of Conditional Probability Statistics by 8-Month-Old Infants. Psychological Science, Vol. 9, No. 4. (July 1998), pp. 321-324.
- 6. Diamond, Jared. The Benefits of Multilingualism. Science 330, 611-2 (2010).