Study on Low-Income ELL Students Shows Benefits of Bilingualism: Better Self-Control
09.13.2012 | New American Foundation | Maggie Severns
Previous research has pointed to bilingualism having cognitive benefits, such as an increased ability to focus and direct attention. These benefits, however, had never been examined on students with low-income backgrounds, a key omission that makes it difficult to use lessons from research on the bilingual brain to better educate America’s large-and-growing population of English language learners.
But in a forthcoming article in Psychological Science, researchers looked specifically at the effects of bilingualism on low-income children and found that previous finding about the bilingual brain does apply to students from low-income families. The study was led by Pascale Pascale Engel de Abreu of the University of Luxembourg and colleagues.
The study included 40 2nd graders who spoke Portuguese and 40 who were bilingual in Portuguese and Luxembergish, all of them living in Luxemberg. All of the children spoke Portuguese as their first language. The students were tested in vocabulary, motor skills, and in a variety of tasks designed to test their working memory, executive function, and other cognitive skills. One of the tasks testing executive function, for example, required childrento look at 20 images of spacecrafts and pair up matching images as quickly as possible, a task that depended on their ability to ignore all the non-matching spacecrafts. Bilingual students were given the opportunity to respond in Luxemburgish or Portuguese.
On the initial tests, the monolingual, Portuguese-speaking children had better vocabularies in Portuguese. On most other measures, including the students’ working memories and their motor skills, the two groups’ abilities were about the same.
But the bilingual children were significantly better in one category, which the researchers called control. Control denoted the ability to direct and focus attention and included things like students’ ability to focus on something while filtering out other stimuli, like lights or background noises. In these areas, the bilingual students’ advantage was “robust with a large effect size,” the authors wrote.
The advantages became more pronounced as the tasks got harder. “The higher the control demand of the task,” the authors wrote, “the more likely it is that a bilingual effect will emerge.”
This finding that bilingual children from low-income families actually have an advantage over their peers sheds light on the way the bilingual brain works. It also hints at potential ways to help monolingual students from low-income families build their executive function skills. “Our study suggests that intervention programs that are based on second language teaching are a fruitful avenue for future research,” said Engel de Abreu in a press release from the Association for Psychological Science. “Teaching a foreign language does not involve costly equipment, it widens children’s linguistic and cultural horizons, and it fosters the healthy development of executive control.”