Brain and Body

Bilingual Toddlers Enjoy Greater Cognitive Benefits

February 9, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Toddler with father

Switching between languages provides greater mental control.

The results of a recent study published by the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology has shown that bilingual children are better than children that only speak one language at certain types of mental tasks. The research also concluded that, the more children switched between languages, the greater their skills at certain cognitive tasks.

The research, led by Christina Crivello and Poulin-Dubois, took place at Concordia’s Centre for Research in Human Development (CRHD). Crivello and Poulin-Dubois led a research team who were comparing bilingual toddlers to their monolingual peers. In the study they assessed 39 bilingual children and 43 monolinguals at 24 months of age and then reassessed the same children at 31 months to see how their vocabularies had increased as well as to compare their abilities at completing new cognitive tasks.

SEE ALSO: 7 Practical Tips to Learn a New Language

At first there was no apparent difference in the testing that was done between the bilingual and monolingual toddlers, but a dramatic change was picked up when the toddlers performed the conflict inhibition test. The conflict inhibition test looks at the mental process that overrides a well learned rule that one would normally pay attention to.

To assess the toddler’s abilities at conflict inhibition, Crivello administered two tests.

In the first, reverse categorization, participants were told to put a set of little blocks into a little bucket and big blocks into a big bucket. Then the instructions were switched — big blocks in the little bucket and little blocks in the big bucket. In the second test, Shape conflict, participants were shown pictures of different sized fruit and asked to name them. Then a new series of images was shown with a small fruit embedded inside a large one. Toddlers were asked to point to the little fruit.

What the research team found was that those toddlers who were bilingual had better cognitive flexibility and memory skills than their monolingual peers. This is apparent with the fact that bilingual toddlers more frequently switch between languages, which seems to be contributing to their increased mental performance in the tasks they performed.

As co-author Poulin-Dubois explained, “By the end of the third year of life, the average bilingual child uses two words for most concepts in his or her vocabulary, so young bilingual children gradually acquire more experience in switching between languages.”

It seems that speaking more than one language from an early age has great cognitive benefits, not only in the early years of life, but also as you grow older.

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