GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mastering another language besides one’s native tongue often requires serious discipline. Now, researchers from the University of Florida suggest people who speak two languages may actually be better at a cognitive level at ignoring distractions and irrelevant information, as well as shifting their attention from one thing to another, in comparison to those who speak one language.
Researchers analyzed the differences between bilingual and monolingual individuals spanning attentional control and ignoring information that isn’t important in the moment, according to study authors Grace deMeurisse, a University of Florida Ph.D. candidate studying linguistics, and Edith Kaan, a UF professor in 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 says in a university release. “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.”
For instance, if an English and Spanish-speaking person is having a conversation in Spanish, both languages are active. English may be temporarily on hold, but it’s always ready to be deployed if needed.
Many prior projects have attempted to study and better understand the distinctions between the two groups (bilinguals and monolinguals) across broad cognitive mechanisms, which are mental processes that our brains use, including memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making.
“The effects of speaking two languages on a person’s cognitive control is often debated,” deMeurisse explains. “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.”
In an attempt to draw out differences between the two groups, researchers used a task that has never been applied in psycholinguistics before, called the “Partial Repetition Cost” task. The test gauged participants’ abilities to deal with incoming information and subsequently control their attention.
“We found that bilinguals seem to be better at ignoring information that’s irrelevant,” Prof. Kaan comments.
The two groups included both functional monolinguals and bilinguals. Functional monolinguals were defined as people who had two years or less of foreign language experience in a classroom and only used the first language they learned as a child. Bilinguals, on the other hand, were people who learned both their first and second languages between the ages of nine and 12 and were still using both of those languages.
Kaan notes that an individual’s cognitive traits continuously adapt to external factors. Humans, generally speaking, have very few traits that remain fixed throughout our lifetime.
“Our cognition is continuously adapting to the situation, so in this case it’s adapting to being bilingual,” the researcher continues. “It doesn’t mean it won’t change, so if you stop using the second language, your cognition may change as well.”
This project shows a clear need to build more consistency among the varied experiments used to understand differences between those who speak one language and bilinguals, researchers explain.
“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 says.
However, researchers stress their work was not intended to show that people who speak two or more languages have an advantage over, or should be considered smarter than, those who speak one.
“We are not looking for advantages or disadvantages,” deMeurisse concludes. “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.”
The study is published in the journal Bilingualism Language and Cognition.
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