A new study on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism suggests bilingual individuals have an enhanced ability to maintain attention and focus.

Researchers believe this improved attentional control is part of the “bilingual advantage,” rather than a better-than-average inhibitory control.

Scientists have observed that bilinguals possess cognitive advantages over those who only speak one language, but the nature of the advantage was unclear.

One opinion suggested that bilinguals have developed enhanced inhibitory control abilities; that is, the ability to suppress or tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the task at hand. Another theory suggests that bilinguals possess enhanced attentional control abilities and are better able to concentrate on a specific stimulus.

Researchers recruited 99 participants to complete three well-known psychological tests that measure inhibitory control ability; the Simon task, the Spatial Stroop task and the Flanker task. Of those, 48 were highly proficient English-Chinese bilingual, who had learned English before the age of 10 and switch between languages on a daily basis, and 51 were English monolingual speakers.

The important measure was the time it took participants to respond to the stimuli presented in the tests on a computer screen.

  • In the Flanker task, participants were presented with rows of arrows and asked to indicate the direction of the central arrow by pressing a left or right button. They needed to ignore the flanking arrows, which either pointed in the same or different direction as the central arrow.
  • In the Spatial Stroop task, participants needed to indicate the direction of a single arrow, pointing either left or right, by pressing a button. Arrows appeared either on the left or the right side of the screen, which helped or hindered the correct response.
  • The Simon task was very similar to the Spatial Stroop task, but stimuli were single blue or red squares instead of arrows.

Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.

Source: University of Birmingham