Bilingualism’s Cognitive Effects in Children

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.[2] The third and first are likely true, as well. But, having tracked down the relevant article in Science by Jared Diamond,[6] 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).[3] 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.[1]

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.[1]

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.[5] (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:
  • 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).
This entry was posted in Linguistics Musing. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  1. ^
    Posted December 5, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    I most certainly will bring this site to be able to my favorites, it is wonderful.

  2. #
    Posted December 5, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Good viewing the following online shop.

  3. #
    Posted February 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I would like to exchange back links with your website is that doable?

    • Posted August 31, 2014 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      What an awesome way to explain this-now I know evytrehing!

  4. Posted December 4, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Well supported website. IT are a extensive machines. Kudos to the founder. Could you visit my site and share your comments. The pictures are tremendous. Your fan.

  5. Posted July 13, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    A softly outlook Once used up, the 358 is paradoxically a soft watching : the 47 mm of central chord enables a enormous allotment from the 170 grams of ponderosity (that is agreeable to reason regarding how big the chronometer, because of the titanium). Enhanced console is large, especially if it’s worn to a thread about the left clutches since the diadem defence doesn’t press about the wrist. Just the the third dimension can wince but clan get ordinary to it expeditiously. The readability is ideal in each and every location because of the abstinence from the dial and also to the clutches which are generously covered with Super Luminova. Panerai Luminor Watches The turning bezel is uncompounded to sway. The clicks are near and tight. It exudes hardness. Another thong, mental for the diving As some high-spirited holder will maybe go dabbling some octopuses or sun rays with this particular nice toy, Panerai provides another special diving nylon corporeal strap on the clasp that can take in the lever groundwork from the diadem security. Well reflection, it appears of the unfailing hardness and enables modifying the dimensions of the strap to every millimeter, that is useful when putting on diving suite. Deduction To attract a inference, this bit doesn’t insufficient arguments. It’ll please both fire-brand fanatics that need to have an debarring fragment, too for the amateurs of most remote diving watches who definitely are lured by its faultless making. officine panerai canada

  6. Posted April 8, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    These are in fact wonderful ideas in on the
    topic of blogging. You have touched some nice factors here.

    Any way keep up wrinting.

    official michael kors outlet

  7. Posted June 4, 2014 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    I every time used to study article in news papers but now as I am a user of internet thus from now I am using
    net for articles or reviews, thanks to web.

  8. Posted September 10, 2014 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    It’s impressive that you are getting thoughts from this piece
    of writing as well as from our dialogue made here.

    Feel free to visit my web site … How To Seduce Girls

  9. Posted October 1, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog
    that’s equally educative and amusing, and without a doubt,
    you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that too few folks are speaking intelligently about.
    I am very happy that I stumbled across this during my hunt for something concerning

  10. Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    コロラドからのご挨拶!私は今退屈職場では私がすることを決めたチェックアウト昼休み私のiPhone上の あなた。私は本当に好き情報あなた現在ここに、私が家に帰る時に見てみるのを待つことはできません。 、| とにかくとにかく ..、 ..私も使っていない無線LANだけで3Gを私の上にロードされ、ブログ|どのように速く、迅速にで私は驚いてショックを受けよ ブログ!

  11. Posted September 22, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    私はオフトピック場合は、これを知っているが、私は自分の始めに探していますブログをと好奇心したすべてがに必要とされるものセットアップを設定取得するには?私はあなたのようなブログはかなりの費用がかかるだろう持つと仮定している?私は今ではない、非常にインターネットスマートので、私は100%ではないんだ必ず。どれ推奨やアドバイスをいただければ幸いです。 おかげで

  12. Posted September 22, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    私は疑問し卓越したすばらしいポストにこの対象?あなたは少し手の込んだことができれば| 感謝感謝をさらに私は非常にあることと思います。 乾杯!

  13. Posted September 23, 2015 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    こんにちは!私の中の誰かので、私は に来て私たちと一緒に| |ウェブサイト マイスペースFacebookのグループがこれを共有した。情報は|私は間違いなく愛し楽しんよ。私は今ブックマークを、私のフォロワーにこれをツイートされます! 優秀ブログと素晴らしい デザイン。

  14. Posted October 6, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    私はブログ何かを見つけるために好奇心プラットフォーム あなたがされている利用と協力?いくつかのマイナーセキュリティを|私の写真と一緒に問題問題|私は持つ経験だサイトと私がう見つけたいものより安全安全な。 勧告何かありますか?

  15. Posted October 7, 2015 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    ちょうどあなたの記事より少し多くを| 追加などについて|あなたは今まで思想とみなさがありますか?とすべて、私はあなたがの基本となる重要な貴重なが言うことを意味する。または写真あなたはいくつかの素晴らしいを追加した場合しかし|より多くのあなたの記事を与えるために、ビデオクリップ動画 “ポップ、について考える “!あなたのコンテンツが優れているがと画像とクリップ、この紛れもなく、間違いなくでした のいずれかである最も有益フィールド|そのニッチ最高。 すごいブログ!

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>