Language pervades every aspect of our lives. Language helps us express our feelings to others, communicate with them, identify with our cultural ties and have a better understanding of the world around us. For most people around the globe, their rich linguistic surroundings involve more than one language. The majority of the world population is either bilingual or multilingual. This is supported by findings by the European Commission in 2006 which showed that 56 percent of the respondents were able to speak in a different language other than their mother tongue. In America, for instance, a country widely considered to be monolingual, 20 percent of those above the age of five could speak a different language other than English by the year 2007, representing a 130 percent increment from the year 1982 (Goldman, Negen, & Sarnecka, 2014). The spread and adoption of technology over the years has enabled researchers to venture deep into the effects of bilingualism on cognitive development of children.
There is conflicting information regarding the contribution of bilingualism towards the cognitive development in children. Scientists claim that bilingualism may play a role in conferring either specific or general abilities in the performance of certain tasks that require selective attention over another task. Some studies have however found no relationship between bilingualism and the conference of superior cognitive abilities. Other research found that the contribution of bilingualism towards cognitive development can be affected by the socioeconomic status of the participants. Studies from the first half of the past century seem to indicate that bilingualism had negative effects on children as compared to their monolingual counterparts. They found that bilingual children had lower intelligent quotients and performed dismally both in verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests. The majority of those studies concluded that bilingualism is impacted negatively on a childs linguistic, cognitive and educational development (Shook & Marian, 2012). Over the years, however, there has been a radical shift in the perception of the impact of bilingualism on the cognitive development of the child. Successive research has found that bilingualism is an asset to the child, contrary to previously held perceptions that it had a negative impact on their cognitive abilities. Studies conducted midway through the last century came to the conclusion that bilingual children were more socially sensitive and better at rule-discovery tasks.
Such discrepancies in the studies between the two periods can e attributed to the problem of ensuring that the monolinguals and the bilinguals used in the study were comparable in all aspects except on their linguistic capabilities. At the time, such factors as bias might have had an advantage on bilingual children as compared to the monolinguals. Researchers have delved deep into the impact of bilingualism on cognitive development in a bid to ascertain whether there is any relationship between the two.
Researchers have majorly dealt with the relationship between bilingualism and socio-cognitive development majorly because the mastery of two languages can affect how thoughts and words are processed and presented. Studies indicate that bilinguals have an advantage as they can better relate to the conversational needs of their partners. Bilingual children are more sensitive to the fact that they are not able to understand a language that sounds foreign to them as compared to monolingual children. Research findings show that bilingual children usually score higher on cognitive tests as compared to their monolingual counterparts (Shook & Marian, 2012). Such tests include the ability to detect grammatical errors in sentences, an understanding of the conventional origin of names and mental flexibility. This advantage bestowed on the bilinguals can be attributed to their ability to focus their attention on the variables and context at hand, especially information that seems contradictory or ambiguous. An improved cognitive ability of a child enables it to harness their presentational skills which are perceived to be important in the process of effective communication. A child who has mastered the concept that a name could be used to represent more than one object could be beneficial to them as it gives them a different perspective of looking at things. This could help them develop a better understanding of people around them.
Based on research findings, when a bilingual uses one language, the other language will still be active. The process of understanding a language works in such a way that one does not hear an entire word all at once as it is spoken; rather the person will hear it in a sequential order. Even before a word is out of the mouth, the brain engages in the process of guessing what the word might be by activating many other words that match the signal. This process is not limited only to the bilinguals but is a process that happens to all. However, for bilinguals it is different in that it is not limited to just one language-auditory function in the brain activates related words regardless of the language to which they have been accustomed (Kempert & Hardy, 2014).
A very prominent finding on the research on the cognitive impact of bilingualism has been on the attentional control and inhibition ability among children. This can be traced to the need for bilinguals to constantly keep track of their language systems to adapt to the different contexts in which they find themselves. Cognitive abilities are affected both by the frequency of switching from one language to another as well as a proficiency in the mastery of more than one language. The existence of more than one language systems in the case of bilinguals implies that one of these systems has to be suppressed so as to prevent intrusion from the other system. Such a mechanism can be attributed to the ability to effectively handle conflicts as they require a high degree of inhibition or suppression. Also, the constant need for bilinguals to select one language over the other depending on their contexts plays a role in helping the bilingual have a better assessment of a conflict situation.
Studies conducted on 11-year-old children to assess their executive functions in relation to their achievements in English, science and mathematics revealed a high correlation between achievement and inhibition. The researchers reached the conclusion that inhibition is fundamental to academic success in general as opposed to specific learning domains. In another study, children aged four were assessed in the area of working memory in relation to executive functions. The performance of these children was assessed at the end of their first year and third years in elementary schools in terms of their mathematical solving skills and reading skills. The results showed that high inhibition levels at the age of four contributed to a higher score both for mathematical solving skills as well as their reading skills (Goldman, Negen, & Sarnecka, 2014). Several other studies on kindergarten children show the relationship between inhibitory control and the ability to improve mathematical solving skills as well as reading abilities which aid in the development of executive functions.
Some studies, however, strive to prove that there is no relationship between bilingualism and cognitive development. In one study, monolingual and bilingual children were assessed on a numerical discrimination task where children were required not to focus on the area but on the number. The experiment involved 92 children aged between 3-6 years who were asked to determine which of two arrays of dots had more dots than the other. Half of these trials were congruent in that the one with the numerically greater area also had a larger number of dots. The incongruent one had a smaller area as well as the array of dots. The findings from the study showed that children performed better in congruent trials as compared to the incongruent one. There was no variation in the performance of bilingual children in relation to their monolingual counterparts (Ladas, Carroll, & Vivas, 2015). Such studies prove to demonstrate that there is no evidence to support the idea that bilingualism bestows an advantage both on children as well as adults which their monolingual counterparts do not have.
The mastery of language proves an important aspect of human interactions. It enables individuals to communicate better with each other and have a better understanding of ones culture, personality as well as an appreciation of different perspectives held by the human race. Numerous studies have been conducted to show the relationship between bilingualism and cognitive development, especially among children. The results have been conflicting; some are showing that bilingualism bestows an advantage on the cognitive development of children. Some, however, show that bilingualism do not bestow any significant advantage on bilingual children over their monolingual counterparts. Further studies have to be conducted to determine whether bilingualism has any impact on the cognitive development of children.
Goldman, M., Negen, J., & Sarnecka, B. (2014). Are bilingual children better at ignoring perceptually misleading information? A novel test. Developmental Science, 17(6), 956-964. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/desc.12175
Grosjean, F. (2011). What are the Effects of Bilingualism?. Psychology Today. Retrieved 18 October 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201106/what-are-the-effects-bilingualism
Kempert, S. & Hardy, I. (2014). Childrens scientific reasoning in the context of bilingualism. International Journal Of Bilingualism, 19(6), 646-664. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1367006914527803
Ladas, A., Carroll, D., & Vivas, A. (2015). Attentional Processes in Low-Socioeconomic Status Bilingual Children: Are They Modulated by the Amount of Bilingual Experience?. Child Development, 86(2), 557-578. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12332
Shook, A. & Marian, V. (2012). The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum On Brain Science, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583091/
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