There are still parents who are worried about the potential harm they may be doing to their children when speaking a different language in the home to that of the language being taught in school. We feel it important to highlight the advantages.
Dr Fraser Lauchlan
Research led by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow has linked differences in the performance of primary school children in various tasks to the mental acuity and cognitive skills needed to alternate between languages. The paper appeared in the International Journal of Bilingualism
, and took English/Gaelic and Italian/Sardinian speaking children as the basis of its comparison.
A total of 121 children from Scotland and Sardinia took part in the study; 62 of them were bilingual. Each of the tasks the children, aged around nine, were required to complete was set in English or Italian according to their first language.
Dr Fraser Lauchlan is a Visiting Professor at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, where he and colleagues carried out the research, as well as an Honorary Lecturer at Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences and Health. I asked Dr Lauchlan about the motivations for choosing these particular sets of languages.
"The reason we chose Sardinian and Gaelic was because they are both minority languages; there is much less research into the possible advantages of bilingualism with minority languages," he explained. "By far the majority of research regards children who speak internationally recognised languages such as English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, and Japanese."
The aim of the study was to investigate whether there were significant differences between bilingual and monolingual children in four areas of cognitive ability: arithmetic, problem-solving ability, vocabulary, and short-term memory.
"The skills we tested were chosen because they are related to the four areas where previous research has indicated a possible advantage for bilinguals: selective attention, meta-linguistic skills, creative or flexible thinking and short-term memory."
The children’s problem-solving skills were tested by asking them to recreate a pattern using coloured blocks, and their short-term memory by asking them to orally repeat a list of numbers in the correct order (also known as a digit-span test). The vocabulary skills of the children were tested not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them, and it was found that the bilingual participants were able to provide a much more detailed and rich description than their monolingual contemporaries.
It was not only in the vocabulary test where bilingual individuals tended to fare significantly better, but in each one of the tests. They also displayed greater ability when it came to selective attention – filtering out less relevant information in favour of that which was more important – which the researchers believe may help them in alternating between languages, or code-switching.
It was also the case that the English-speaking children with Gaelic as their second language outperformed those who spoke Sardinian as a second language to Italian. Dr Lauchlan stated that this may be attributed to the differing statuses of Gaelic and Sardinian as minority languages in their respective native countries. While Gaelic has an extensive literature and is often taught formally in Scottish schools, the same cannot be said for Sardinian.
"Our theory is that the Gaelic-speaking children had the advantage of a formal education in the second language – all attended a Gaelic-medium education school – whereas the Sardinian children only speak their second language in the home or out of school," he told me.
"Moreover, Sardinian has a largely oral tradition. Much less is communicated in written form, and the language is spoken differently in different parts of the island; there is no agreed standardised form of Sardinian."
According to Dr Lauchlan, very little evidence remains to uphold the view that bilingualism can have adverse effects for children’s linguistic development. Indeed, the study conducted by him and his colleagues suggests that there are demonstrable benefits to bilingualism, giving the lie to the belief that addressing or teaching a child in more than one language is necessarily confusing or off-putting for them.
"There is still a theory that it can be detrimental to the width of the vocabulary of bilingual speakers in the early years, but this is quickly caught up when the children reach the age of about seven to eight years. Moreover, it is worth highlighting that in our research the bilingual children outperformed the monolingual children in the vocabulary sub-test, which was a test of the richness of description provided when asked to define words."
The research findings have logical repercussions for the arguments which favour the advancement of bilingualism, particularly in educational settings.
"Implications regard the importance of promoting bilingualism, in terms of formal education but also in the home," said Dr Lauchlan. "It is crucial to highlight to concerned parents that bilingualism does not pose any disadvantage to their children. Indeed, research indicates that it brings certain advantages.
"There are still parents who are worried about the potential harm they may be doing to their children when speaking a different language in the home to that of the language being taught in school. We feel it important to highlight the advantages."
The next step for the team was to consider when the differences they noted in the nine year old pupils began to be expressed, as Dr Lauchlan informed me.
"We have just finished another study looking at pre-school children, to see when the differences begin to emerge. We will be submitting a paper for publication in the next couple of months."