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The Cognitive Advantages of Bilingualism 2

This is my second post on the so-called bilingual advantage. Research has shown that bilinguals have certain enhanced cognitive abilities. To efficiently manage two languages, bilinguals must continually employ their cognitive control functions, which includes the ability to inhibit or ignore certain things and focus on others. This leads to what is called “improved executive control.” What is amazing is how early this starts. A study by Kovacs and Mehler, Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants, showed that preverbal infants learning two languages outperformed those learning one language – in certain tasks.


Specifically, in three eye-tracking studies, Kovacs and Mehler showed that 7-month-old bilinguals were better able to redirect their attention when a learned pattern changed. In one study, for example, both monolingual and bilingual children were taught that a ball disappearing behind a screen would emerge from a point on one side. Once this pattern was established, the ball emerged from the opposite side. Bilinguals were quicker to redirect their attention. The authors speculate that this is because the infants were practiced at blocking out one language and focusing on another, so their ability to refocus attention was enhanced. The authors go on to claim the findings “show that processing representations from 2 languages leads to a domain-general enhancement of the cognitive control system well before the onset of speech.”


What is notable, in terms of this blog, is that the children were preverbal. They were yet to speak a word. In fact, they were at the age when their phonemic inventory, what Patricia Kuhl calls their “sound map,” was being established (see my post of the Native Language Magnet Theory). They were, that is, learning the sounds of their language or languages and that was enough to initiate their bilingual advantage.


Am I suggesting the product this blog supports, b4, will give children such an advantage? No, not at all. There are still a lot of questions to be answered. How much exposure is needed? Is there an age where learning two languages stops boosting a child’s executive functions? Starting at infancy works, but what if they’ve already reached school age? These questions are yet to be answered, so I make no claims about phoneme acquisition training and the bilingual advantage.


I have to say, though, that b4 will not hurt. And, while explicit phoneme training may or may not confer the bilingual advantage, it has other benefits. A study by Barbara Conboy and Patricia Kuhl, Impact of second-language experience in infancy: brain measures of first- and second-language speech perception, showed that the ability of monolingual English speaking  youngsters to distinguish English phonemes was improved after being trained to perceive Spanish sounds. Learning a second language confers meta-linguist knowledge, and this operates on the level of phonology. And, as a reminder, I will quote the study I ended my last post with: “Finally, our results provide the first direct evidence that bilinguals’ general cognitive advantages originate from the specific abilities involved in language separation.”


This quote is from: “A Bilingual Advantage in Visual Language Discrimination In Infancy,” by Sebastian-Galles et al.


As you know:


That is what b4 does.

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