The Bilingual Brain May be Better at Ignoring Irrelevant Information, Study Finds.

Individuals fluent in two languages may possess enhanced abilities in shifting their attention between tasks compared to those who are monolingual, as indicated by a recent study featured in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. The research, conducted by Grace deMeurisse, a linguistics Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, and Edith Kaan, a professor in the Department of Linguistics at UF, delved into the distinctions in attentional control and the capacity to disregard irrelevant information between bilingual and monolingual individuals.

DeMeurisse explained, “Our findings indicate that bilingual individuals exhibit greater proficiency in disregarding irrelevant information, as opposed to actively suppressing or inhibiting it. One possible rationale for this observation is that bilinguals consistently navigate between two languages, necessitating the continual redirection of their attention away from the inactive language.”

To illustrate, consider an individual fluent in both English and Spanish engaged in a Spanish conversation. Both languages remain active in this scenario, with English temporarily suspended but readily available for use when required. DeMeurisse highlighted that numerous studies have explored distinctions in broad cognitive mechanisms between bilingual and monolingual groups. These cognitive mechanisms encompass mental processes such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making.

“The impact of bilingualism on an individual’s cognitive control is a subject of ongoing debate,” she remarked. “Existing literature may not consistently reveal pronounced differences, potentially influenced by the specific tasks employed by linguists in investigating variances between bilingual and monolingual individuals.”

In their investigation, DeMeurisse and Kaan aimed to uncover potential distinctions between the two groups, employing a novel task in psycholinguistics known as the Partial Repetition Cost task. This task was used to assess participants’ capacity to handle incoming information and exercise control over their attention.

Kaan elaborated, stating, “Our findings revealed that bilingual individuals appear to excel in disregarding irrelevant information.”

The study involved two categories of participants: functional monolinguals and bilinguals. Functional monolinguals were individuals with two years or less of foreign language exposure in a classroom setting, using only their first language acquired during childhood. Bilinguals were defined as those who acquired both their first and second languages before the ages of 9 to 12 and continued actively using both languages.

Kaan stressed that the cognitive traits of an individual are in a constant state of adaptation to external influences, with only a few remaining immutable throughout our lifespan.

“Our cognition consistently adjusts to the circumstances, so in the context of being bilingual, it undergoes corresponding adaptations,” she clarified. “This dynamic nature implies that it’s not a fixed characteristic, and if the use of the second language diminishes, cognitive changes may ensue.”

The study conducted at the University of Florida highlights the significance of achieving greater uniformity in a range of experiments aimed at understanding the distinctions between monolingual and bilingual individuals.

“In our exploration of bilingualism and cognition, we are reshaping discussions on differences between bilinguals and monolinguals, actively seeking additional factors for consideration, and employing diverse research methodologies,” deMeurisse emphasized.

The researchers were explicit in clarifying that their study did not aim to assert any inherent advantage or disadvantage for individuals who speak two or more languages compared to those who speak only one.

“We are not seeking to establish advantages or disadvantages,” clarified deMeurisse. “Nevertheless, irrespective of cognitive disparities, the act of learning a second language will invariably yield benefits, be they cognitive, social, or environmental. Exposure to a second language is never a negative.”

More information: Grace deMeurisse et al, Bilingual attentional control: Evidence from the Partial Repetition Cost paradigm, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (2023). DOI: 10.1017/S1366728923000731

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