According to a study recently published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, people who speak two languages may be better at shifting their attention from one thing to another, compared to monolingual speakers.
Examining the differences between bilingual and monolingual individuals, the study focused on attentional control and processed information, according to its authors Grace deMeurisse, a University of Florida (UF) Ph.D. candidate studying linguistics, and Edith Kaan, a UF professor within the department of linguistics.
“Our results showed that bilinguals seem to be more efficient at ignoring information that’s irrelevant, rather than suppressing—or inhibiting information,” deMeurisse said. “One explanation for this is that bilinguals are constantly switching between two languages and need to shift their attention away from the language not in use.”
An example of this could be an English- and Spanish-speaking person having a conversation in Spanish—both languages are active yet English is cognitively put on hold but ready to be deployed as needed.
DeMeurisse expressed that several previous studies have examined the distinctions between bilingual and monolingual groups in broad cognitive mechanisms. These are the mental processes that our brains use such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making.
“The effect of speaking two languages on a person’s cognitive control is often debated,” she said. “Some of the literature says these differences aren’t so pronounced, but that could be because of the tasks linguists use to research differences between bilinguals and monolinguals.”
The researchers worked to see if differences between the two groups would surface based on their hypotheses, additionally using an entirely new task to Applied Psycholinguistics practices. The process, called a ‘Partial Repetition Cost task’ measures the participants’ abilities to deal with incoming information while controlling their attention.
“We found that bilinguals seem to be better at ignoring information that’s irrelevant,” Kaan said.
The two groups of participants included ‘functional monolinguals’ and bilinguals. Functional monolinguals were categorized as those who had two years or less of a foreign language experience in a classroom and use only the first language they learned in childhood.
Bilinguals were defined as those who had learned both their first and second languages before adolescence and were still using both languages.
Kaan explained that an individual’s cognitive traits continuously adapt to external and environmental factors, with very few traits that remain throughout our whole lifetimes.
“Our cognition is continuously adapting to the situation, so in this case it’s adapting to being bilingual,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it won’t change, so if you stop using the second language, your cognition may change as well.”
The study demonstrates an overall need to build consistency among the types of experiment used to understand differences between bilingual and monolingual people.
“In the study of bilingualism and cognition, we are redefining the way we talk about differences between bilinguals and monolinguals and searching for more factors to consider and more methods to conduct that research,” deMeurisse said.
The team also stressed that their study was not intended to suggest that bilingual people have an advantage over monolingual people.
“We are not looking for advantages or disadvantages,” deMeurisse said. “However, regardless of cognitive differences, learning a second language is always going to be something that can benefit you, whether those benefits are cognitive, social, or environmental. It will never be a negative to be exposed to a second language.”