Building on earlier evidence showing a beneficial effect of bilingualism on children's cognitive development, we review recent studies using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods to examine the effects of bilingualism on cognition in adulthood and explore possible mechanisms for these effects. This research shows that bilingualism has a somewhat muted effect in adulthood but a larger role in older age, protecting against cognitive decline, a concept known as 'cognitive reserve'. We discuss recent evidence that bilingualism is associated with a delay in the onset of symptoms of dementia. Cognitive reserve is a crucial research area in the context of an aging population; the possibility that bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve is therefore of growing importance as populations become increasingly diverse.
To examine the effects of bilingualism on cognitive control, we studied monolingual and bilingual young adults performing a flanker task with functional MRI. The trial types of primary interest for this report were incongruent and no-go trials, representing interference suppression and response inhibition, respectively. Response times were similar between groups. Brain data were analyzed using partial least squares (PLS) to identify brain regions where activity covaried across conditions. Monolinguals and bilinguals activated different sets of brain regions for congruent and incongruent trials, but showed activation in the same regions for no-go trials. During the incongruent trials, monolinguals activated the left temporal pole and left superior parietal regions. In contrast, an extensive network including bilateral frontal, temporal and subcortical regions was active in bilinguals during the incongruent trials and in both groups for the no-go trials. Correlations between brain activity and reaction time difference relative to neutral trials revealed that monolinguals and bilinguals showed increased activation in different brain regions to achieve less interference from incongruent flankers. Results indicate that bilingualism selectively affects neural correlates for suppressing interference, but not response inhibition. Moreover, the neural correlates associated with more efficient suppression of interference were different in bilinguals than in monolinguals, suggesting a bilingual-specific network for cognitive control.
[Correction Notice: An erratum for this article was reported in Vol 14(4) of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (see record 2011-22118-013). In the original article, in Figure 2, the caption should have indicated the right group of bars as "Incongruent-Congruent". The corrected figure is present in this erratum.] Young English-speaking monolingual and bilingual adults were examined for English proficiency, language use history, and performance on a flanker task. The bilinguals, who were about twenty years old, were divided into two groups (early bilinguals and late bilinguals) according to whether they became actively bilingual before or after the age of ten years. Early bilinguals and monolinguals demonstrated similar levels of English proficiency, and both groups were more proficient in English than late bilinguals. In contrast, early bilinguals produced the smallest response time cost for incongruent trials (flanker effect) with no difference between monolinguals and late bilinguals. Moreover, across the whole sample of bilinguals, onset age of active bilingualism was negatively correlated with English proficiency and positively correlated with the flanker effect. These results suggest a gradient in which more experience in being actively bilingual is associated with greater advantages in cognitive control and higher language proficiency.
Previous research has shown that bilingual speakers have higher levels of cognitive control than comparable monolinguals, especially at older ages. The present study investigates a possible neural correlate of this behavioral effect. Given that white matter (WM) integrity decreases with age in adulthood, we tested the hypothesis that bilingualism is associated with maintenance of WM in older people. Using diffusion tensor imaging, we found higher WM integrity in older people who were lifelong bilinguals than in monolinguals. This maintained integrity was measured by fractional anisotropy (FA) and was found in the corpus callosum extending to the superior and inferior longitudinal fasciculi. We also hypothesized that stronger WM connections would be associated with more widely distributed patterns of functional connectivity in bilinguals. We tested this by assessing the resting-state functional connectivity of frontal lobe regions adjacent to WM areas with group differences in FA. Bilinguals showed stronger anterior to posterior functional connectivity compared to monolinguals. These results are the first evidence that maintained WM integrity is related to lifelong naturally occurring experience; the resulting enhanced structural and functional connectivity may provide a neural basis for “brain reserve.”
We use a time-course analysis to examine the roles of vocabulary size and executive control in bilinguals’ verbal fluency performance. Two groups of bilinguals and a group of monolingual adults were tested in English with verbal fluency subtests from the Delis–Kaplan Executive Function System. The two bilingual groups were equivalent in their self-rated English proficiency but differed in levels of receptive and expressive vocabulary. We hypothesized that the difference between the two bilingual groups in vocabulary and between the monolingual and bilingual groups in executive control would lead to differences in performance on the category and letter fluency tests and dissociate the roles of vocabulary knowledge and executive control in verbal production. Bilinguals and monolinguals performed equivalently in category fluency, but the high-vocabulary bilingual group outperformed both monolinguals and low-vocabulary bilinguals in letter fluency. An analysis of the retrieval time-course functions in letter fluency showed dissociable effects of resources available at the initiation of the trial, considered to reflect vocabulary size, and ability to monitor and retrieve new items using a novel phonemic-based word searching strategy, considered to reflect executive control. The difference in slope of the best-fitting curves reflected enhanced executive control for both bilingual groups compared to monolinguals, whereas the difference in the starting point of the logarithmic functions reflected higher levels of vocabulary for high-vocabulary bilinguals and monolinguals compared to low-vocabulary bilinguals. The results are discussed in terms of the contributions of linguistic resources and executive control to verbal performance.
Studies often report that bilingual participants possess a smaller vocabulary in the language of testing than monolinguals, especially in research with children. However, each study is based on a small sample so it is difficult to determine whether the vocabulary difference is due to sampling error. We report the results of an analysis of 1,738 children between 3 and 10 years old and demonstrate a consistent difference in receptive vocabulary between the two groups. Two preliminary analyses suggest that this difference does not change with different language pairs and is largely confined to words relevant to a home context rather than a school context.
The study explores the relationship between phonological awareness and early reading for bilingual children learning to read in two languages that use different writing systems. Participants were 57 Cantonese--English bilingual 6-year-olds who were learning to read in both languages. The children completed cognitive measures, phonological awareness tasks, and word identification tests in both languages. Once cognitive abilities had been controlled, there was no correlation in word identification ability performance across languages, but the correspondence in phonological awareness measures remained strong. This pattern was confirmed by a principal components analysis and hierarchical regression that demonstrated a different role for each phonological awareness factor in reading performance in each language. The results indicate that phonological awareness depends on a set of cognitive abilities that is applied generally across languages and that early reading depends on a common set of cognitive abilities in conjunction with skills specific to different writing systems.
[Correction Notice: An erratum for this article was reported in Vol 35(3) of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition (see record 2009-05251-016). An incorrect figure was printed due to an error in the production process. The correct version of Figure 1b is provided in the correction.] Ninety-six participants, who were younger (20 years) or older (68 years) adults and either monolingual or bilingual, completed tasks assessing working memory, lexical retrieval, and executive control. Younger participants performed most of the tasks better than older participants, confirming the effect of aging on these processes. The effect of language group was different for each type of task: Monolinguals and bilinguals performed similarly on working memory tasks, monolinguals performed better on lexical retrieval tasks, and bilinguals performed better on executive control tasks, with some evidence for larger language group differences in older participants on the executive control tasks. These results replicate findings from individual studies obtained using only 1 type of task and different participants. The confirmation of this pattern in the same participants is discussed in terms of a suggested explanation of how the need to manage 2 language systems leads to these different outcomes for cognitive and linguistic functions.
We report the results of two studies investigating lexical access in bilinguals. In Study 1, monolinguals performed better than bilinguals on tests of naming and letter fluency, but not on category fluency. When vocabulary size was considered, most of the effects disappeared or were reduced. In Study 2, a larger group of bilinguals was studied to compare the effect of vocabulary size, and a more restrictive version of the letter fluency task was used to increase executive processing involvement. In this case, bilinguals with matched vocabulary scores outperformed monolinguals on letter fluency, and bilinguals with lower vocabulary scores performed at the same level as monolinguals. The results are discussed in terms of the contributions of vocabulary size and executive control to performance on lexical retrieval tasks.
Bilinguals often outperform monolinguals on nonverbal tasks that require resolving conflict from competing alternatives. The regular need to select a target language is argued to enhance executive control. We investigated whether this enhancement stems from a general effect of bilingualism (the representation of two languages) or from a modality constraint that forces language selection. Bimodal bilinguals can, but do not always, sign and speak at the same time. Their two languages involve distinct motor and perceptual systems, leading to weaker demands on language control. We compared the performance of 15 monolinguals, 15 bimodal bilinguals, and 15 unimodal bilinguals on a set of flanker tasks. There were no group differences in accuracy, but unimodal bilinguals were faster than the other groups; bimodal bilinguals did not differ from monolinguals. These results trace the bilingual advantage in cognitive control to the unimodal bilingual’s experience controlling two languages in the same modality.
Neuroimaging studies of reading have identified unique patterns of activation for individuals reading in alphabetic and Asian languages, suggesting the involvement of different processes in each. The present study investigates the extent to which a cognitive prerequisite for reading, the understanding of the symbolic function of print, is common to children learning to read in these two different systems. Four-year-old children in Hong Kong learning to read in Cantonese and children in Canada learning to read in English are compared for their understanding of this concept by means of the moving word task. Children in both settings performed the same on the task, indicating similar levels of progress in spite of experience with very different writing systems. In addition, the children in Hong Kong benefited from the structural similarity between certain iconic characters and their referents, making these items easier than arbitrary characters. These results point to an important cognitive universal in the development of literacy for ail children that is the foundation for skilled reading that later becomes diverse and specialized.
Four groups of children in first grade were compared on early literacy tasks. Children in three of the groups were bilingual, each group representing a different combination of language and writing system, and children in the fourth group were monolingual speakers of English. All the bilingual children used both languages daily and were learning to read in both languages. The children solved decoding and phonological awareness tasks, and the bilinguals completed all tasks in both languages. Initial differences between the groups in factors that contribute to early literacy were controlled in an analysis of covariance, and the results showed a general increment in reading ability for all the bilingual children but a larger advantage for children learning two alphabetic systems. Similarly, bilinguals transferred literacy skills across languages only when both languages were written in the same system. Therefore, the extent of the bilingual facilitation for early reading depends on the relation between the two languages and writing systems.
The study explores the notion that some Chinese characters contain pictorial indications of meanings that can be used to help retrieve the referent. Thirty adults with no prior knowledge of Chinese guessed the meanings of twenty Chinese characters by choosing between one of two photographs. Half of the characters were considered to be iconic and the other half was considered to be arbitrary. The proportion of correct guesses for iconic characters was high, but the proportion for arbitrary characters was at chance. These results show a distinction between characters based on the extent to which they have retained aspects of iconicity in reference to their concepts that can direct the reader to their meaning. The results have implications for using pictures to promote the understanding of the orthographic-semantic process in simple Chinese characters.
Two hundred and four 5- and 6-year-olds who were monolingual English-, bilingual English-Chinese-, or Chinese-speaking children beginning to learn English (2nd-language learners) were compared on phonological awareness and word decoding tasks in English and Chinese. Phonological awareness developed in response to language exposure and instruction but, once established, transferred across languages for both bilinguals and 2nd-language learners. In contrast, decoding ability developed separately for each language as a function of proficiency and instruction in that language and did not transfer to the other language. Therefore, there was no overall effect of bilingualism on learning to read: Performance depended on the structure of the language, proficiency in that language, and instructional experiences with that writing system. These results point to the importance of evaluating the features of the languages and instructional context in which children become biliterate.