Today’s society places a heavy emphasis on the importance of being an effective social communicator, whether it be through verbal or non-verbal skills. Presently, more than half of the world’s population is multilingual and an increasingly larger number of people have been exposed to another language at the minimum. This exposure to language is an elemental part of early development and such exposure can facilitate unique skills needed for effective communication. In current research it is clear that bilingualism, as an experience, has significant consequences on cognitive abilities, however, what is not clear is the strength or direction of these consequences.
Raising children in a bilingual environment sets them up for success in the modern day social environment by enhancing cognitive functions, specifically perspective-taking ability, and success in attention-directed conflict tasks. Due to the fact that there are many unanswered questions revolving around the debate of if bilingualism is beneficial to development, there are many common, and seemingly strong, counter arguments that come to mind when considering the topic.
Bilingual children have been shown to excel when a task was non-verbal, as opposed to the monolingual children who did not. This capability to use unique tools in the non-verbal tasks can be seen as valuable in the real world, as most forms of modern communication do not involve first-person verbal requirements. However, it is now well-documented that bilingual children do not have as advanced of a vocabulary capacity as monolinguals and experience error into adulthood . Specifically, an overall analytical study showed that monolinguals have a vocabulary test score of 105, while bilinguals had a score of 95, a highly significant difference. Notably, this same pattern persists with aging and into adulthood where bilinguals are seen to experience errors such as increased difficulty accessing vocabulary, and lower scores on verbal fluency tasks. Commonly, individuals deem these errors as pressing under the common belief that being linguistically strong is essential in life and allow these facts to deter them from setting up a bilingual environment for their children, however, results show the benefits of bilingualism that out-weigh this.
Theory of mind is the cognitive ability to successfully attend to a perspective that is not your own and inhibit egocentric biases that could alter the decision you are making for another. This ability is significantly heightened in bilingual children and is essential to effective communication as it diminishes misinterpretations between people that could have serious social consequences.
Researchers tested children’s ability to understand another’s intended meaning and make a decision based upon it by configuring an experiment where children in 3 language groups (monolingual, exposed to language, and bilingual), had to take on the another's perspective, referred to as the director, to effectively move a target object satisfying the director’s intention. Results showed a dramatic difference where the majority of children in both the exposure and, even more so, the bilingual group were able to actively take the director’s perspective, whereas the monolingual group seemed to act on chance. These results are noteworthy because this ability to effectively push aside personal attitudes and understand another’s is key in social environments. Furthermore, although initial eye-gaze does not directly dictate intention, it is proven that the ability to recover from this egocentrism is necessary in order to take on another’s perspective.
The aforementioned study measured initial gaze as well as the final decision made and the results showed that not only were bilingual and exposure children better at recovering from the initial gaze, but also showed a significant decrease in even having such egocentric first looks. These findings concluded that bilingual and exposure grouped children were innately more attuned to the director’s perspective and have a stronger ability to successfully complete the task. Combined, the two results from this study show that bilingual education provides a unique strength in this effective communication ability to take on other perspectives, which is necessary in our modern world.
The primary processes in the cognitive system are inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and updating working memory codes, all of which are influenced, either negatively or positively, by the ability to attend. Bilingual children can be seen to have a more robust cognitive system as a result of their exclusive ability to mentally represent multiple languages and effectively inhibit one linguistic system over the other to achieve the goal of effective communication. In a common task assessing grammatical judgment and accuracy, monolinguals and bilinguals were measured against each other in their abilities to complete tasks which required controlled attention and inhibition. Results showed that while monolinguals were slightly better at comparable tasks that measured knowledge of grammar, bilinguals were stronger at accepting that inappropriate sentences were grammatically correct despite being incongruent with their knowledge of the world. This ability shows how bilingual children are able to direct attention, while inhibiting instinct, and thereby articulate an accurate answer. Moreover, bilingual children develop the ability to problem solve, when faced with conflicting cues, earlier than monolingual children which allows for a more developed natural cognitive capability to accurately interpret.
The aforementioned research was extended on by researchers who tested children in different language groups ability to solve problems in a task which had children immediately re-sort a stimulus on a new feature immediately after an already associated one. The typical mistake noted in children was that they sorted by the first salient criteria even though they understood the new instruction, however several studies have shown bilingual children master this ability to switch criteria earlier in development than monolinguals. This cognitive ability to successfully attend and inhibit to complete are shown to not only establish earlier in bilingual children but also are stronger throughout development resulting in a more advanced cognitive system that facilitates a series of important communicative tasks necessary for inclusion in a social environment. It is evident that experience has a significant effect on cognitive capabilities and advancement of development in children.
Research shows that advantages to bilingual education occur earlier in the lifespan and continuously stay stronger in such individuals throughout cognitive reserve regression. For tasks based around simple recall, specifically vocabulary oriented ones, there seems to be a disadvantage to bilinguals as the conflict between multiple linguistic systems causes common verbal errors monolinguals do not experience. However, just the simple notion of these errors does not indicate they cannot be overcome and in a society where a majority of communication rests heavily on non-verbal tasks, bilinguals have an advantage.
In conclusion, an enhancement in the unique tools of accurate perspective-taking and overall cognitive function shows proof for the argument that children should be exposed to a second language during development in order to succeed in today’s social environment.
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