An Amazing Study of the Bilingual Advantage

Most English teachers know of the cognitive gains associated with bilingualism.  We love to tell our students about them. But, do you know when these improvements start to show, and what that implies?

At least some of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are attributed to a bilingual’s need to inhibit one language while using the other. Inhibitive control it’s called, and it affects the ability to focus, to tune out irrelevant things, and to choose appropriate responses to stimuli. Bilinguals simply get lots more practice at this and surprisingly, the positive effects start to show at 7-months of age. The research I will discuss shows that before bilingual children know a single word the benefits of balancing the sounds of two languages are starting to show.

The article I’m referring to is a set of three eye-tracking experiments conducted by Kovacs and Mehler. In these studies, infants were trained that after a cue an object would appear at a specific location. The location was then switched. The infants had to relearn where the object would appear. They had to redirect their gazes from the previously correct location to a new one. The bilinguals were quicker to re-learn. That is to say, both monolinguals and bilinguals learned to respond to a speech signal, (and a visual cue in another of the experiments) and to anticipate the object’s appearance on one side of a screen. Bilinguals were quicker to redirect their anticipatory looks when the object began to appear on the opposite side. They were quicker at putting previously learned behavior aside, and so were better able to refocus their attention. This was interpreted as having enhanced inhibitory control.

This was before any words were learned! The children only knew the sounds! That is why this blog is called b4. It teaches what natives know before they learn words and phonics.

If you are interested, I suggest you read the article yourself:

Kovacs, A. M. & Mehler, J. (2009) Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants. PNAS 106 (16)

The article is online at:

Listening is very important. The advantages of bilingualism manifest themselves when bilinguals are learning the sounds. Your students can hear phonemes in good old-fashioned minimal pairs at

That is what b4 does.



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