1. Study suggests bilingualism may increase cognitive flexibility in kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

    January 21, 2018 by Ashley

    From the McGill University press release:

    Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently published in Child Development.

    “This is a novel and surprising finding,” says Prof. Aparna Nadig, the senior author of the paper, from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. “Over the past 15 years there has been a significant debate in the field about whether there is a ‘bilingual advantage’ in terms of executive functions. Some researchers have argued convincingly that living as a bilingual person and having to switch languages unconsciously to respond to the linguistic context in which the communication is taking place increases cognitive flexibility. But no one has yet published research that clearly demonstrates that this advantage may also extend to children on the autism spectrum. And so it’s very exciting to find that it does.”

    The researchers arrived at this conclusion after comparing how easily 40 children between the ages of six and nine, with or without ASD, who were either monolingual or bilingual, were able to shift tasks in a computer-generated test. There were ten children in each category.

    Blue rabbits or red boats

    The children were initially asked to sort a single object appearing on a computer screen by colour (i.e. sort blue rabbits and red boats as being either red or blue) and were then asked to switch and sort the same objects instead by their shape (i.e. sort blue rabbits and red boats by shape regardless of their color).

    The researchers found that bilingual children with ASD performed significantly better when it came to the more complex part of the task-shifting test relative to children with ASD who were unilingual. It is a finding which has potentially far-reaching implications for the families of children with ASD.

    “It is critical to have more sound evidence for families to use when making important educational and child-rearing decisions, since they are often advised that exposing a child with ASD to more than one language will just worsen their language difficulties,” says Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, the paper’s first author, and a recent McGill PhD graduate. “But there are an increasing number of families with children with ASD for whom using two or more languages is a common and valued practice and, as we know, in bilingual societies such as ours in Montreal, speaking only one language can be a significant obstacle in adulthood for employment, educational, and community opportunities.”

    Despite the small sample size, the researchers believe that the ‘bilingual advantage’ that they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications and should be studied further. They plan to follow the children with ASD that they tested in this study over the next three-five years to see how they develop. The researchers want to see whether the bilingual advantage they observed in the lab may also be observed in daily life as the children age.


  2. Study suggests dual-language learners outperform monolingual students once they gain English proficiency

    November 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Not all dual-language learners are at risk academically, but as a group, these students are often labeled as such, despite differences in their English skills.

    A new Iowa State University study examined how variation in dual language status among Head Start students related to development in cognitive and academic areas. The research team led by Ji-Young Choi, an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, found dual-language learners (DLLs) had significant growth, eventually outperforming students who only spoke English, once DLLs gained basic English proficiency. The results are published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

    Choi, Christine Lippard, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State; and Shinyoung Jeon, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, analyzed data measuring inhibitory control (the ability to pay attention and control natural, but unnecessary thoughts or behaviors) and math achievement for low-income students in Head Start through kindergarten. The data, collected through the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009, included 825 children — whose home language was English or Spanish — at 59 Head Start programs across the country.

    Instead of treating DLLs as a homogenous group, researchers created two categories — Spanish-English bilinguals, who can function in both languages; and DLLs with limited English skills — based on ability entering Head Start. They identified stark differences between the DLL groups and English-only students over the course of the study. Entering Head Start, bilingual students had higher inhibitory control, but lower math scores, than English-only students did. DLLs with limited English skills lagged behind both groups. However, over the course of 18 months, bilingual students outperformed English-only students with higher scores in math and inhibitory control, despite having lower baseline scores for math at the beginning of the study.

    DLLs with limited English skills — students considered at risk when they entered Head Start — also made significant progress, the study found. These students outpaced bilingual and English-only students in the rate of gains for inhibitory control skills. While their scores had not caught up with the other two groups by the midpoint of kindergarten (the final point of analysis for the study), Choi expects with more time DLLs with limited English skills would eventually match or even outperform English-only peers as they learn more English and become bilingual.

    “Recognizing that dual-language learners can do better than we expected has huge implications. When these students do not have age-appropriate English skills they are more at risk, but once they achieve those skills they actually excel,” Choi said. “This study also confirms that there is a cognitive benefit for bilingual students.”

    Importance of inhibitory control

    The researchers say that bilingual children’s faster growth rate in inhibitory control over time helped explain the significant difference in kindergarten math skills between bilingual children and English-only students. Based on the FACES data, they could not provide a definitive explanation for the faster growth rate in inhibitory control. However, Choi says the research results lend support to the theory that bilingual students develop stronger inhibitory control skills because of their daily practice toggling between languages to fit the conversation, and inhibiting one language while speaking another.

    Inhibitory control encompasses everything from a child’s ability to suppress the impulse to grab a toy away from a friend to inhibiting the impulse to pronounce a “t” sound at the beginning of the, Lippard said. It is an important foundational skill for academic growth as well as behavior.

    Supporting students’ home language

    Recognizing skill-level differences is important given that DLLs are in more than 70 percent of Head Start classrooms. Lippard says all early childhood educators need to understand the developmental strengths of DLLs, and recognize there is no one-size-fits-all approach for teaching these students. The study makes the case for instructional support to help DLLs become proficient in English while learning or maintaining their home language. Lippard says one way to achieve that is by giving students the opportunity to engage with linguistically diverse teachers.

    “Preschool programs are so full of academic expectations that adding a Spanish lesson time may not be helpful or developmentally appropriate,” Lippard said. “Learning Spanish by interacting with a native Spanish speaker and experiencing typical preschool activities like singing songs or reading stories in Spanish holds potential benefits for all of the children in the classroom.”

    Choi would like to see instructional support for DLLs throughout their formal education. DLLs use their home language less and less as they are exposed to English in school and risk losing their home language, Choi said. While it is important for students to be proficient in English, she says DLLs would lose the potential bilingual benefits without support for their home language.


  3. Study suggests bilingual preschoolers show stronger inhibitory control

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Oregon press release:

    For students in preschool, speaking two languages may be better than one, especially for developing inhibitory control — the ability to stop a hasty reflexive response and instead select a more adaptive response.

    That idea isn’t new, but a University of Oregon study took a longitudinal approach to examine the bilingual advantage hypothesis, which suggests that the demands associated with managing two languages confer cognitive advantages that extend beyond the language domain.

    The study appeared in the journal Developmental Science.

    Researchers looked at a national sample of 1,146 Head Start children who were assessed for their inhibitory control at age 4, and then followed over an 18-month period. The children were divided into three groups based on their language proficiency: Those who spoke only English; those who spoke both Spanish and English; and those who spoke only Spanish at the start of the study but were fluent in both English and Spanish at the follow up assessment.

    “At the beginning of the study, the group that entered as already bilingual scored higher on a test of inhibitory control compared to the other two groups,” said the study’s lead author Jimena Santillán, a UO doctoral student in psychology at the time of the study.

    Follow-up assessments came at six and 18 months. Inhibitory control was assessed using a common pencil-tapping task, in which the participant is instructed to tap a pencil on a desk twice when the experimenter taps once, and vice-versa, requiring the student to inhibit the impulse to imitate what the experimenter does and but do the opposite instead.

    Over the follow-up period, both the bilingual group and the monolingual-to-bilingual transition group showed more rapid inhibitory control development than the group of English-only speakers.

    “Inhibitory control and executive function are important skills for academic success and positive health outcomes and well-being later in life,” said study co-author, Atika Khurana, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services and scientist at the UO’s Prevention Science Institute.

    “The development of inhibitory control occurs rapidly during the preschool years,” she said. “Children with strong inhibitory control are better able to pay attention, follow instructions and take turns. This study shows one way in which environmental influences can impact the development of inhibitory control during younger years.”

    Students in this study came from low socioeconomic status families, as is typical of Head start samples. Such children are in a group known to be at-risk for poorer outcomes related to executive function skills. This population allowed the researchers to compare students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds but who had different language experiences.

    Researchers also were able to control for other variables that could be associated with inhibitory control development, such as a child’s age and parenting practices. The study’s design allowed researchers to focus on the effects of bilingual experience on inhibitory-control development during preschool years.

    Previous studies have examined the effects of bilingualism on inhibitory control, but have done so with a focus on one point in time or development and have focused on smaller samples from mostly middle class backgrounds, said Santillán, who now is a senior research manager at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

    “Many studies have addressed the bilingual advantage hypothesis,” she said. “However, the findings have been inconsistent. Part of the reason is the difficulty of randomly assigning participants to be bilingual or monolingual, which would be the ideal research design.”

    The longitudinal approach allowed researchers to see how inhibitory control changed over time for children who were developing bilingualism during the same time period, as well as for those who were already bilingual with those who remained monolingual.

    “This allowed us to get closer to capturing the dynamic nature of the development of bilingualism and inhibitory control, both of which change over time, and rule out other potential explanations for the differences observed between groups,” she said.

    It was important, she said, to focus on a sample of children who tend to be at risk for not developing inhibitory abilities at the same rate as their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds because of the motivation to find factors that could help buffer such children from these negative outcomes.

    “We were able to obtain evidence that bilingualism can be a protective factor that helps children develop these cognitive abilities,” Santillán said. “Provided that more research studies support our results, the findings we’ve obtained could have implications for policies related to bilingual education and could help encourage families to raise their children as bilingual.”