Bilingual myth-busting; cognitive benefits refuted
For decades, research reinforced the idea that bilingual or multilingual children developed cognitive advantages over those who speak one language, but new analysis from researchers at Western University in London, Ont., say that simply isn’t true.
“Regrettably, I think, from our review of 25 years of evidence published in the literature, there is in fact that kind of, what we call, confirmatory bias that has crept into this information,” says Professor J Bruce Morton.
Morton and Professor Casandra Lowe, both of Western’s Brain and Mind Institute, spearheaded the research. The findings have now been published in the journal Psychological Science.
Morton says there’s been an over-enthusiastic evaluation of the impacts of learning languages, without considering other factors that improve a child’s ability to learn, “Things like socioeconomic status, the immigration level of the family, the educational background of the parents themselves.”
Morton teamed up with researchers at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., to critically re-examine documentation that has reinforced the position that languages are able to enhance cognitive ability.
One of the key papers was published in the journal Child Development titled in 1999, Cognitive complexity and attentional control in the bilingual mind.
The paper, which has been cited more than 1,100 times since its publication, claimed that bilingual children are at an advantage when compared to monolinguals based on evidence that Chinese-English bilingual preschoolers outperform English monolingual preschoolers on measures of attention.
According Morton, the problem “is that it is well-known that preschool children from East Asia outperform preschool children from North America on tests of attention. And if you look at the 1999 study, it is obvious that language status and country of origin are perfectly confounded.”
He says when the other factors are accounted for being bilingual has very little impact.
Morton says that shouldn’t diminish the economic or cultural value of being bilingual, especially in country like Canada which has two official languages and a diverse population, adding, “there are more opportunities for gaining employment in the federal government for those children who are proficient in English and French than those who are exclusively monolingual. So why wouldn’t you seek an education for your children in those two languages.”