Bilingualism in the preschool years can significantly alter a child’s beliefs about the world, according to a new study by Concordia University.
In contrast to their monolingual peers, children exposed to more than one language after age three believe that a person’s psychological attributes are the result of experience rather than something they are born with.
For the study, published in the journal Developmental Science, the researchers tested a total of 48 five and six-year-olds. The children were a mix of monolingual, simultaneous bilingual (learned two languages at once), and sequential bilingual (learned one language and then another) speakers.
The children were told stories about babies born to English parents but adopted by Italians, and about ducks raised by dogs.
They were then asked if those children would speak English or Italian when they grew up, and whether the babies born to duck parents would quack or bark. The kids were asked whether the babies born to duck parents would be feathered or furred.
“We predicted that sequential bilinguals’ own experience of learning language would help them understand that human language is actually learned, but that all children would expect other traits such as animal vocalizations and physical characteristics to be innate,” said psychology professor Dr. Krista Byers-Heinlein, a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development.
Byers-Heinlein and her co-author, Bianca Garcia, a Concordia undergraduate student, were surprised by the results. Sequential bilinguals did, in fact, show reduced essentialist beliefs about language — they knew that a baby raised by Italians would speak Italian.
But they were also far more likely to believe that an animal’s physical traits and sounds are learned through experience, that a duck raised by dogs would bark and run rather than quack and fly.
“Both monolinguals and second language learners showed some errors in their thinking, but each group made different kinds of mistakes. Monolinguals were more likely to think that everything is innate, while bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned,” said Byers-Heinlein.
“Children’s systematic errors are really interesting to psychologists, because they help us understand the process of development. Our results provide a striking demonstration that everyday experience in one domain — language learning — can alter children’s beliefs about a wide range of domains, reducing children’s essentialist biases.”
The study has important social implications because adults who hold stronger essentialist beliefs are more likely to stereotype others and have prejudiced attitudes.
“Our finding that bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs raises the possibility that early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity,” said Byers-Heinlein.
Source: Concordia University