Bilingualism helps early development of executive control

August, 2011

A study of Korean preschoolers demonstrates that at least some of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are due to learning two languages, not because of a more diligent culture or a more enriched environment.

An increasing number of studies have been showing the benefits of bilingualism, both for children and in old age. However, there’s debate over whether the apparent benefits for children are real, or a product of cultural (“Asians work harder!” or more seriously, are taught more behavioral control from an early age) or environmental factors (such as socioeconomic status).

A new study aimed to disentangle these complicating factors, by choosing 56 4-year-olds with college-educated parents, from middle-class neighborhoods, and comparing English-speaking U.S. children, Korean-speaking children in the U.S. and in Korea, and Korean-English bilingual children in the U.S.

The children were tested on a computer-game-like activity designed to assess the alerting, orienting, and executive control components of executive attention (a child version of the Attention Network Test). They were also given a vocabulary test (the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III) in their own language, if monolingual, or in English for the bilinguals.

As expected, given their young age, English monolinguals scored well above bilinguals (learning more than one language slows the acquisition of vocabulary in the short-term). Interestingly, however, while Korean monolinguals in Korea performed at a comparable level to the English monolinguals, Korean monolinguals in the U.S. performed at the level of the bilinguals. In other words, the monolinguals living in a country where their language is a majority language have comparable language skills, and those living in a country in which their primary language is a minority language have similar, and worse, language skills.

That’s interesting, but the primary purpose of the study was to look at executive control. And here the bilingual children shone over the monolinguals. Specifically, the bilingual children were significantly more accurate on the attention test than the monolingual Koreans in the U.S. (whether they spoke Korean or English). Although their performance in terms of accuracy was not significantly different from that of the monolingual children in Korea, these children obtained their high accuracy at the expense of speed. The bilinguals were both accurate and fast, suggesting a different mechanism is at work.

The findings confirm earlier research indicating that bilingualism, independent of culture, helps develop executive attention, and points to how early this advantage begins.

The Korean-only and bilingual children from the United States had first generation native Korean parents. The bilingual children had about 11 months of formal exposure to English through a bilingual daycare program, resulting in them spending roughly 45% of their time using Korean (at home and in the community) and 55% of their time using English (at daycare). The children in Korea belonged to a daycare center that did offer a weekly 15-minute session during which they were exposed to English through educational DVDs, but their understanding of English was minimal. Similarly, the Korean-only children in the U.S. would have had some exposure to English, but it was insufficient to allow them to understand English instructions. The researchers’ informal observation of the Korean daycare center and the ones in the U.S. was that the programs were quite similar, and neither was more enriching.

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