Do Bilingual People Have a Cognitive Advantage?

By Neuroskeptic | December 4, 2015 12:54 pm


For years, psychologists have been debating the “bilingual advantage” – the idea that speaking more than one language fluently brings with it cognitive benefits. Believers and skeptics in the theory have been trading blows for a while, but matters recently came to a head in the form of a series of papers in the journal Cortex.

The bilingual advantage hypothesis states that bilinguals excel at ‘cognitive control’ also known as ‘executive function’ – meaning that they find it easier to suppress “reflex” responses and focus on the task at hand. The theory is that whenever they’re speaking or listening to one language, the brains of bilinguals have to use cognitive control to actively suppress the other language, to avoid getting mixed up. Because they’re constantly practicing cognitive control, bilinguals are better at it – so the theory goes.

Psychologists Kenneth Paap, Hunter A. Johnson and Oliver Sawi aren’t convinced however. They set off the Cortex debate with a paper concluding that “bilingual advantages in executive functioning either do not exist, or are restricted to very specific and undetermined circumstances.”

In this paper, Paap et al. discussed issues such as flawed study designs and publication bias. Their key point, however, was simply that the large majority of studies that have looked for the bilingual advantage just haven’t found it.

The bulk of the published results – 83% of them in fact – are negative, Paap et al. said. Worse, the largest (and hence most reliable) studies have been uniformly negative. The 17% of positive results tended to come from smaller experiments:


Paap et al.’s critique was followed by 21 comments from other bilingualism researchers, following which Paap et al. responded to the responses with a summing-up article. This summary makes for rather depressing reading. In it, Paap et al. say that leading proponents of the bilingual advantage hypothesis were invited to contribute to the debate, but many declined:

The sounds of silence emanating from the missing commentaries resonate with Morton’s (2015) point that one reason for the lack of progress in resolving inconsistencies in the literature is that “dissenting opinions are simply dismissed” as proponents of the bilingual advantage hypothesis “march on ignoring all appeals for higher standards”.

In response to a critical comment pointing out that a meta-analysis of the published studies finds a small, but statistically significant, bilingual advantage (in other words, those 17% of positive results count for something), Paap et al. say that evidence for publication bias in the dataset makes even this small effect suspect:

Woumans and Duyck (2015) state that a solid meta-analysis is the best synthesis of an effect and that de Bruin et al. (2015) reported a significant bilingual advantage across studies [but if] the intent is to say that a significant finding is “solid” even in the presence of strong evidence that the sample is biased, then we disagree.

What are we to make of all this?

Neuroskeptic readers will be familiar with psychology theories coming under critical scrutiny. Last month, for instance, I covered the case of “romantic priming“. The situation is bit different this time, however. With “romantic priming”, the vast majority of published studies support the existence of the phenomenon. The critics said that the literature is too consistent – suggesting (extreme) publication bias. With the bilingual advantage, it’s the opposite problem: the effect isn’t consistent enough.

One might be forgiven for feeling that the odds are stacked against theories these days. It seems like if there’s not enough evidence for your claim, people won’t believe it, but if there’s lots of evidence, no-one will believe it either.

In truth, I think what this “Catch 22” reveals is a growing lack of confidence in the published literature in the field, and specifically in the publication process which incentivizes publication bias and p-hacking. It’s the spectre of these biases that makes people skeptical of “too much” evidence.

I don’t think it will be easy to restore confidence in the current system. Rather, I think we need a new way to communicate scientific results. As I’ve written before, I see preregistration as the solution to this problem.

In my view, if bilingual advantage theorists want to prove that their hypothesis is true, they need to set up a large, fully preregistered study and make all of the data open once it’s finished. Even better, they could involve their opponents in the process and make it an adversarial collaboration – something I’ve recommended before as a way to resolve these kinds of controversies. (Some of the Cortex commentaries on Paap et al.’s paper suggest that too.)

Just publishing more of the usual studies won’t help.

ResearchBlogging.orgPaap KR, Johnson HA, & Sawi O (2015). Should the search for bilingual advantages in executive functioning continue? Cortex PMID: 26586100

CATEGORIZED UNDER: FixingScience, science, select, Top Posts
  • Cyril

    indeed publication confirmed as well in psy science this year

    • OWilson

      Thanks for that.

  • OWilson

    In this information age there is a huge market for news articles that supply a 24/7 news cycle.

    With the continuing publication of so many different points of view, there will always be some newspaper, magazine, or blog that will happily jump on any study, such as “study proves wife beating can help a marriage”, or “transgenders make better coffee”, despite the tenuous and questionable methodology.

    You can guarantee any study that reinforces a political point of view will be snapped up first.

    Funding for teaching Spanish as an equal language in schools is currently a hot button issue.

    Stands to sense this study will be used as fodder for the justification.

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  • Rodrigo ms

    What about multilingual cognitive advantage?

  • Francesco Belladonna

    I wonder if it brings any disadvantages instead? I speak fluently italian and English and I feel very confused lately. Also improvements in one comes with some losses in the other one: if you speak more English than italian, you won’t be used anymore to use some special words fron that language. Not only that, I start to think in terms of “meaning” instead of word, it’s not hard to find me mistakenly using an english word in the middle of an italian sentence

  • Anonymouse

    Thanks for this post, I have been arguing forever that this idea doesn’t make sense (a good example of how terrible many ted talks really are), even though I never got around to actually go through the literature to back this claim up with data and Paap’s article seems like a good start.

    I don’t understand how people can really think that practicing one task will just magically make a person better in general, rather than understanding that it will make them better at that particular task and those that are similar enough to benefit from, but that their performance in tasks that look similar but actually require a different response will actually deteriorate – transfer or interference effects one might call those. To state it more generally: the brain works in a discriminative fashion, which implies a necessary tradeoff between those taks that it learns to do against those that it could possibly learn to do, but didn’t.

    What strikes me as particularly annoying about this instance, though, is that there used to be the exact opposite believe, namely that bilinguals are at a disadvantage – having a smaller vocabulary for example, which has been largely rejected by now (to my knowledge – as I said, I don’t have a good grip on the literature) since bilingual people clearly use language in different ways which will lead to their vocabulary becoming compartmentalized. If a child speaks English in Kindergarten, but only Spanish at home, the vocabulary per language ought to be smaller than that of a monolingual (everything else being equal of course) and this will not even out as language (and vocabulary) learning is a lifelong process*. But somehow the failure of that (and similar) theories have not led to an understanding that this isn’t how our brains work.

    I agree with the comment on statistics or the replication crisis. But what is the point, really, as long as the field devastatingly continues to dig in the wrong hole?

    *Ramscar, Michael, et al. “The myth of cognitive decline: Non‐linear dynamics of lifelong learning.” Topics in cognitive science 6.1 (2014): 5-42.

    • Thomas Hope

      There actually is evidence that bilinguals have smaller vocabularies in each of their languages than do monolingual speakers of those languages (larger overall, of course). If nothing else, monolinguals get a lot more practice than bilinguals in any single language. It just turns out this difference isn’t terribly important in daily life, and is a price more than worth paying for the other benefits.

      The argument in favour of a bilingual advantage is precisely that the practice of bilingualism improves general executive skills BECAUSE those skills are taxed by bilingualism. In other words, the argument is exactly the one that you allow – that there are ‘side-benefits’ in tasks which are very similar to the ones being practiced.

      The point I’m trying to make is that, though the claims Paap is making may be right, they’re not ‘obviously right’ in the way you seem to imply. I don’t think it matters one iota, for example, that people used to wonder about a bilingual DISadvantage. Why does that matter at all? Can’t there be both?

      • Anonymouse

        Well. As we agree, the point is that there *ought* to be both – advantages and disadvantages – it just depends on what you’re looking at. And the reason why it matters that people used to wonder about a bilingual disadvantage is that I find it disappointing that, rather than just pursuing a new, opposite theory, people aren’t taking a stept back and recognizing that there is no free lunch.

        I disagree, though, that it “turns out this difference isn’t terribly important in daily life, and is a price more than worth paying for the other benefits”. I’m sure we also agree that there is no objective way of measuring this, but the very readable paper I cited above makes a good point for why that difference in experience does matter.
        If I got to choose between being a monolingual or a bilingual English speaker (I’m neither), I would choose the former, given that virtually all of the scientific literature I read is written in English and being a monolingual native would make it easier for me to read and understand it, meaning I could read and learn more, which I personally value a lot. I can see how someone else might prefer being bilingual and, say, getting access to the chinese part of the internet. But that’s personal preference, not something that “turns out”.

        • ddsouza

          If you learn two languages from an early age, then bilingualism will confer advantages but not necessarily any disadvantage. I’m monolingual but would much rather be bilingual. I know bilinguals who understand and speak English perfectly well (well enough to carry out research at the highest level), but who can also communicate with colleagues (and order food!) in non-English-speaking countries. (Having said that, I agree that, for scientists, the important thing is to be able to understand and speak English well.)

          • Anonymouse

            “If you learn two languages from an early age, then bilingualism will confer advantages but not necessarily any disadvantage”

            That is incorrect and I have elaborated above why that is. There is no free lunch when it comes to learning, especially if there are time constraints (but even without them there could be no such thing). Learning two languages from an early age on will necessarily mean that comparably less time is devoted to each individual language from an early age on. And that, as the cognitive decline paper I linked to in my first reply as well as everything else we know about learning suggests, comes at a cost.
            Now Thomas Hope above argued that the disadvantage “isn’t terribly important in life”, but my point is that this is subjective and that in my case it would make a huge difference.
            I am a non-native, but generally considered as having a native-like command of English, which means that I am very well able to use it for communication in all modalities and “to carry out research at the highest level”, but that doesn’t mean that I am anywhere near as proficient as my native-speaking colleagues, as I have less experience and, for example, will take longer to read and encounter more words that I simply don’t know (well enough).

          • ddsouza

            Putting to one side your personal experience, my colleagues have informed me that they have never detected a difference between simultaneous/early bilinguals and monolinguals. That is, whenever they have investigated the purported bilingual advantage, they have never found any significant difference between groups on tests of, e.g., vocabulary size. If any differences exist, they are probably too small to be detected and are obscured by larger differences in socioeconomic status, etc., which they try to control for. When I have looked at the literature (albeit very briefly), there seems to be no adverse effects of learning a second language. The question is more about whether there is an advantage or not. Disadvantages are rarely found. Having said that, these kinds of studies are notoriously difficult to evaluate because of individual differences in age of acquisition, language proficiency, frequency of switching between languages, and so on. Caveat: For a host of reasons (see Kuhl, 2008, in Neuron, for an introduction) infants learn languages very well; adults don’t. So I suspect that late learners of a second language will never reach the same level as a native speaker. In fact, it may be impossible for non-natives to reach the level of a native – because of a process of neural specialisation that occurs in infancy and toddlerhood (“restriction of fate”), as well as the massive experience native-speakers accrue and will always have. That’s why I won’t learn a second language. I think there are more useful things to learn (e.g., computer programming). As an adult, it will be very difficult for me to become proficient in a second language. However, I would recommend bilingual parents to raise bilingual infants, because I have only come across advantages (or no differences) in the literature. Also, there is recent evidence that bilingualism may protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline (see Bak et al., I think 2015)… though the mechanisms are completely unknown.

          • Anonymouse

            I’ll happily put my personal experiences aside – I only elaborated on those because my point was that whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages is subjective.
            Your argument is flawed in two ways:

            First, it’s not surprising that your colleagues haven’t found differences in vocabulary, because vocabulary tests don’t actually test vocabulary sizes. In short: Because language is distributed according to an inverse power-law (the Zipfian distribution*), the only thing that can be tested are those words that are frequent enough to be reliably known by everyone tested. But due to the shape of the distribution, the bulk of words are so rare that, necessarily, everyone has encountered a very different set, such that one person’s performance on or knowledge of those words doesn’t allow to predict that of another person (i.e. their distributions they are mutually uninformative).
            A recent crowd-sourced study** by Keuleers and his colleagues shows elegantly how the trend that vocabulary tests on individuals suggest, where the vocabulary score basically doesn’t increase after some age, is misleading and things look very different when calculated over large populations instead.
            (Funnily enough, in that paper they actually found a positive effect of multiple languages on vocabulary scores, but the details of their report suggest that this has to do with their specific material and that the story is much more complex than could be addressed here, but it’s not a problem for my argument:)

            Second – and this is really the crucial point – the way that cognitive decline is measured, or rather how the measures are interpreted, is terribly flawed. The paper I’ve cited before*** elaborates in great detail how lower scores on typical tests of cognitive ability are not so much a measure of cognitive decline as they exhibit the higher processing demands due to greater knowledge in older subjects!
            It also shows how increased experience – continuously and without being too small to measure! – benefits linguistic performance.

            For that reason, the paper you’ve cited isn’t particularly interesting either. And that is assuming that their finding is valid, which would mean ignoring that their analysis is methodologically flawed, as Bak and his colleagues don’t adjust for multiple comparisons (virtually none of their reported p-values would survive correction) and dichotomize continuous predictors.

            ** Keuleers, Emmanuel, et
            al. “Word knowledge in the crowd: Measuring vocabulary size and word
            prevalence in a massive online experiment.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology ahead-of-print (2015): 1-28.
            *** Ramscar, Michael, et al. “The myth of cognitive decline: Non‐linear
            dynamics of lifelong learning.” Topics in cognitive science 6.1 (2014):

          • Observational_Point

            Just to muddy the water in respect of “vocabulary” …
            If owe learn Latin for instance, our ability to understand unfamiliar English words increases. These unfamiliar “new” words are not available for recall but can be understood on demand; they form a kind of “latent” vocabulary that is not quantifiable.
            A language like English is a composite of many tongues, and a knowledge of any one will enhance this latent vocabulary. As English tends towards becoming THE universal language, more and more words from other dialects are being incorporated.

          • Julio Pinto

            English is a language and so are 6 k others in the world. Dialects are a kind of subspecies of one language, such as Bantu or Nambikwara. English has its own dialects or quasi-dialects. Vocabulary itself is NOT a measure of linguistic competence. The lexicon is an open class within a language and word imports are a very common phenomenon. Language is thought. The discussion here seems to be awfully ethnocentric. English is widely used, yes, but this due to geopolitical and economic reasons. For the time being. With the rise of East Asia, we might as well learn some language other than English.

          • ddsouza
          • Sue Willard

            Excuse me. I’m not sure how many of you have much experience in early learning experiences at being bilingual. Over 60 years ago, I started school in a town in New England. Population in that school was overwhelmingly white, european ancestry: from Great Britain, France, Poland, Germany, etc. We were exposed to speaking French in a special class where no ‘english’ was spoken during the class. Radical for that time. That lasted for 4 or 5 years.

            I’m sorry that experience didn’t continue. Most of that French stuck with me.

            I have friends in Canada. Their kids are at least bilingual. Lucky them. I don’t see any of them being limited cognitively. Bright young people with skills in many areas.

            In fact, having knowledge about other languages is a Free Lunch. I also was exposed to Latin when I was 10 or 12 to about age 17. Sometimes I could figure out unknown words in what I was reading.

            In fact Latin is the root language for the sciences. Thank botanical/zoological terminology and naming conventions.

          • Julio Pinto

            What about simultaneous interpreters who are often multilingual? These people are stunningly proficient in whatever they do. Something else: the extension of one’s lexicon has nothing to do with knowing a language. As a linguist, I strongly object to some of the naive and shallow opinions I have read here.

          • davidclu

            I agree with your comment. I grew up speaking Spanish when necessary and English the rest of the time. But I also speak a little German and had no difficulty learning that because I was bilingual.

      • bowlweevils

        It matters because there is a tremendous industry (both in terms of mental effort and financial deployment) devoted to inducing people to learn additional languages. To be more specific, there is a tremendous industry devoted to convincing English monolinguals that they should learn a second language by continental Europeans who had to learn English to engage in international academia or business.

        If learning a second language interfered significantly with development of advanced math skills, many people would opt for the math.

        Which many people already do. They just wouldn’t be able to be made fun of as boring monolingual Americans who can’t even comprehend what they are missing at faculty parties.

  • Joanne Williams

    Much of this could be avoided if researchers would stop chasing tiny effects. If these researchers were more focused on building models and understanding mechanisms (rather than column inches in the New York Times or Buzzfeed) they’d quickly focus on big effects. Life’s too short to be building rigorous research programs around phenomenon with tiny effect sizes.

    • bowlweevils


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  • Bonnie Cramond

    This just questions bilinguals’ advantage in executive functioning. What about other published advantages–such as in cognitive flexibility and creativity due to the ability to see from different view points? Perhaps this article should ave had a more specific title that indicated that it was specific to one particular proposed cognitive advantage.

    • Thomas Hope

      This is hopefully a forgivable oversight on Neuroskeptic’s part: as discussed in the scientific literature, the ‘bilingual advantage’ almost always means a ‘bilingual advantage in executive (non-linguistic) functioning’. Obviously, bilinguals have advantages that flow directly from their language-use – like a different perspective, and often better prospects for employment, and perhaps better luck with the opposite sex if the second language is a pretty one…? The debate that Paap and others are having is really about whether there are indirect benefits as well.

      • Dércio Lichucha

        Hmm isn’t creativity an indirect benefit? Do you think bilingualism helps with that? I mean, I know that technically creativity comes from the subjective subconscious assembling of different information so I suppose I’ve answered my own question.

        • bowlweevils

          Once you figure out how to operationalize “creativity” in a manner that can consistently be used to produce measurable differences in performance by university students, we’ll get started.

  • John Raguso

    I come from a tri-lingual family, English,French and Neapolitan. I’m not sure my linguistically gifted family was any smarter than our ‘regularly’ lingual neighbors. Although there was a palpable feeling of “superiority” toward them

  • Tiziana Metitieri

    Barbara Treccani, one of the contributors to the Bilingualism Forum in Cortex, shared some recommendations from Kenneth Paap. I reported his message in this post and you have been mentioned

    • Neuroskeptic

      Thanks very much for the link! I’m glad to hear that there’s a continuing discussion on this.

  • RCraigen

    I see no evidence in this article to suggest that the metastudies in question separated the individual studies by domain of performance. If there is an effect, should we not see it in the domain of language acquisition and cognate disciplines? And not in other domains, such as Mathematics, Art or … I dunno … Law? It seems to me an expected result — quite consistent with the hypothesis in question — that many studies (ie those testing performance in non-linguistic domains) will yield a negative result while others (those testing linguistic domain outcomes) may show positive. What it it were the reverse — wouldn’t that be interesting? Or perhaps multilingual skills might be even detrimental to performance in … oh, let’s say, perception of regional accents … or maybe sports, or being a jet fighter pilot? Then again, the outcomes mentioned could well be consistent with the nullification of that hypothesis. Let’s see the domain correlation.

    • bowlweevils

      You learn a couple of things when you make those arguments to people espousing the benefits of learning multiple languages

      First, you will be accused of making rote criticism if you do it every time someone pops up with another study that fails to consider language skills vs other advanced skills (despite the obvious same stimulus -> same response)

      Second, many of these studies are conducted by academics who are from regions of the world where English is not the native language, especially continental Europe, who had to learn English to advance in their career and are annoyed by the thousands and thousands of their peers who are native English speakers who didn’t have to do this. Thus the goal is to make the Americans and British feel like they should learn another language.

      You will not see similar criticism of the hundreds of millions of monolingual Chinese speakers, Spanish speakers, Russian speakers, Portuguese, Hindi, Arabic…face it, the more people who speak a language, the more monolinguals there are, and you can get from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego on 2 languages.

      The goal is certainly not to make social scientists think they should learn calculus or an advanced programming language. And don’t you dare suggest that math or complex programming languages are “languages” in a similar enough manner to the tradition languages that they are a fine substitute for human children to devote their attention.

  • smut clyde

    ‘executive function’ – meaning that they find it easier to suppress “reflex” responses and focus on the task at hand

    That strikes me as a very narrow definition of “executive function”. it is the first time I have seen Attentional Blindness re-imagined as an aspect of superior cognition.

    But the ‘executive’ metaphor / construct is vague to the point of uselessness, so I guess people are free to redefine it as “something we can measure easily”, however little that definition has to do with cognition.

    • bowlweevils

      Shhh….don’t let the people sucked in by their video games hear you.

      But “suppressing reflex responses” is not “attentional blindness”. We are dealing with situations where there may be an audio stream of information presented simultaneously with a visual stream of information with the goal of remembering the content of one or the other.

      This is not attentional blindness – you can switch which stream of information is the target for memory, and generally engage in presenting a wide variety of distractions while target information is presented, and judge performance.

      If you were to equate the ability to devote more attention to one stimulus than to another stimulus with “attentional blindness” then most of the activities that organisms in general deal with involve tremendous attentional blindness.

      Writing your own comment involved massive attentional blindness on your part if controlled distribution of mental resources was considered such. What kind of organism sits at a screen and types when there may be food to be eaten nearby or instead of pursuing reproductive opportunities?

  • bowlweevils

    What I find to be a problem is the poor selection of a comparison group. We get bilinguals vs monolinguals. But if our goal is to see whether bilingualism provides some advantage with regard to cognitive control we should be comparing bilinguals with some other group of people who have developed advanced skills that may provide similar abilities with regard to cognitive control.

    So bilinguals should be compared to musicians, or to mathematicians, or doctors, computer scientists – really, just about any complex coherent skill set other than “not bilinguals, matched for age, gender, and general education level”.

    But part of the point of this research program is to make Americans and the British feel bad about themselves, so finding out that having a well-developed skill that involves cognitive control in one domain provides a somewhat generalized advantage with regard to other cognitive control tasks wouldn’t do. And finding that playing the piano well is just as beneficial as having to have learned English to write your research paper won’t make you feel so special either.

    • Tom Sawallis

      I doubt the existence of any such valid comparison group, and certainly (with the possible/partial exception of musicians) those you propose are not workable. Consider:

      – The McGurk effect ( shows that linguistic perception is uninstructed and automatic in the same way as optical and auditory illusions.
      – First language (L1) learning is likewise uninstructed, automatic, and universal across our entire species, barring pertinent pathologies.
      – L1 learning has a critical period ending around puberty beyond which any L1 learned will be “defective”, as shown by cases such as Genie and Idelfonso.
      – Learning of “second” languages (L2s) also has a critical period, in that from birth up to ~4 years, children raised in contexts where 2 or 3 (maybe more) languages are regularly used will learn them, again in uninstructed and automatic fashion, and be indistinguishable from monolingual natives of those languages.

      Music may be the closest parallel to language, since, e.g., all known cultures seem to have some kind of music, yet appreciation of that music varies widely across (even “native”) listeners, and skilled performance is clearly instructed and non-universal.

      For these and other similar reasons, linguists typically conclude that language is too ingrained, developmentally, evolutionarily, and neurologically, for general comparisons to other, especially instructed, skills.

      The point of research on bilingual cognition is the same as for all basic science: Curiosity. Bilingualism researchers are well placed, though, to see — and say — that the smugness expressed by some (doubtless monolingual) Americans and Brits over those with imperfect L2 English is unwarranted. On the contrary, a late-acquired L2, even if imperfect, is a significant cognitive achievement.

      • bowlweevils

        You could write a similar article as the above with regard to the notion of a critical period. Meta-analyses have failed to demonstrate a robust effect, and suggest another long string of confirmation biased studies.

        I am a linguist and do not think that there is anything to make comparison to other learned skills irrelevant or ineffective. And I know many linguists who think the same.

        I also know that skeptics of the “specialness” of natural language aren’t going to be placated or convinced to learn another language without meaningful comparisons to other forms of advanced human abilities.

        And then we’d have more evidence to suggest that language is a special skill, rather than the assumption that it is. Finding that 20 years of intensive math or gymnastics still doesn’t provide similar advantages in certain cognitive control situations would be much better than assuming so.

        Especially since basic math and control of bodily movements are also present in early childhood behavior.

        • Tom Sawallis

          I’m unaware of such a meta-analysis, and curious. Could you share the references, please?

        • Tom Sawallis

          Umm… Bowlweevils? Are you there? I’m still hoping for those references.

        • Tom Sawallis

          Well, Bowlweevils, what are we to conclude? When I posted on Jan 23, it took you less than a day to post 2 long reactions. It has now been 15 days since I asked for the alleged backing research you cite, 8 days since a polite reminder. Do you just make up fauxthoritative studies to bolster arguments that would otherwise lack the strength you think they deserve? What other inference do you leave us?

      • bowlweevils

        Let’s also remember that we are dealing with statistical results. Generally with a 1/20 possibility of being the result of chance. For data where outliers (plus or minus 3SD) are tossed out.

        There could be, and most likely are, millions of people who can achieve full fluency in multiple languages beyond any hypothesized critical period because the research format itself virtually guarantees that these people will not be detected. If they perform too well, they’re not included in the data that is analyzed.

        The same is true for research on the benefits of multilingualism: monolingual subjects who perform extremely well are tossed out, and multilingual subjects who perform very poorly are tossed out.

        This is a problem because were aren’t trying to show that there is a general tendency toward something. We are trying to determine whether something is possible or not. In this situation, you are looking for the outliers, not the average performer. This determines the existence of a critical period vs a time of best learning.

        Also, I’m not sure where you came up with the position that language perception doesn’t vary widely within a population, and especially the position that skilled language performance is not instructed and universal. Literacy is instructed. Writing is instructed. Oratory performance is instructed. Just about everything beyond utterances of a few words in a sequence is instructed.

        And you and I are here demonstrating that we have language perception skills (yes, we are dealing with perception of written language) that are highly advanced for any society. I’m going to guess you learned this through instruction and intentional study.

  • Kahula

    all of this research takes place in monolingual societies by monolingual researchers. How about conducting language research in regions with subjects who are multilingual virtually from birth?

  • Sherry Chandler

    American Sign Language and English Bilingual!

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  • David Lloyd-Jones

    This paper may say nothing about bilingual people. It may very well be that the hypothesis that “executive control” exists is false.

    It’s certainly not a very plausible proposition. Why should the fact of something not happening demonstrate the existence of some other things stopping it from happening?

    The hypothesis may be one of that very large class of things that we we don’t even “take for granted.” They carry outside our consciousness, so we don’t “take” them anywhere, or “for” anything. This may be an example of an assumption dominating a discussion without anyone noticing that it’s even entered it.


    • David Lloyd-Jones

      The following third paragraph flickered very briefly on the screen and then vanished. I had written:

      “I’m glad the triffid-eaters ate all he triffids on my desk, then went home to Mars before I got up, so I could get some work done.”

      I hope it’s clear that I don’t think triffids exist, in fact strongly believe that tiffidovores don’t exist, but see no reason for their hypothetical existence to be adduced to explain my clean desk — which, ahem, also, but visibly, doesn’t exist.


  • Robert Cruder

    When one multi-tasks, either each task is done more slowly or with less attention, perhaps considering fewer details in one’s model of each task.

    Linguists see that in bilinguals. Acquiring a second language does not grant the rigor or ease of a native speaker and often compromises one’s original language. Those born as bilingual think in some common representation (Spanglish?) and map that when communicating. As with the “telephone game”, each such mapping is imperfect.

    I found that learning Latin did not harm my English but did interfere with a later attempt at German. Suppressing what had been previously learned but which was not relevant consumed an increasing portion of the total effort. The same was true when switching between several dozen computer languages over time.

    Multi-linguicism and multi-tasking are like weightlifting. They build an increased capacity that may offer no short-term benefit. Rather, it may improve response to some new challenge or delay age-related decline.

  • David Lang

    A significant difference is exposed one examines the bilingual individuals way of “Being in the World”. Different languages are accompanied by different gestures, even different posture attitudes.
    Martin Heidigger stated “Language is the House of Being”. This eloquent statement points to differences in the spatial-orientation of the speaker during the use of language. The bilingual human is able to adapt the structures specific to the language being spoken and is simply more adaptable to changing situations. More intelligent? No, not necessarily, but certainly more adaptable, and the argument offered by Darwinists states that adaptability is related to success.

  • D. Hunnel

    This discussion space needs a whiteboard! And arguably an equation editor too… I’m not going to cite any particular references, so feel free to discard the following observation as “unsubstantiated”:
    ** Intelligence and creativity both contain a fundamental element of finding significance in linkages between previously unrelated concepts **. The larger your space of “unrelated” concepts, the larger your combinatorial pool of possible linkages — and because that output space of “concepts” increases by factorial and geometric leaps and bounds (more “dimensions” available), “doubling” your semantic access to it quickly outstrips the tools available for meaningful discussion about it. Don’t overlook the importance of “finding significance” in that **primary** sentence. “Executive functioning” makes assumptions re improved focus and avoiding distraction (filtering) – a learned (goal-seeking) emergent behavior, only partially a function of higher bandwidth re combinatorial spaces.
    Great fun.

  • ken T

    How about comparing the success of Ca. public school bi-lingual students to the success of Ca. public school mono-lingual students?

    • Sys Best

      How do you define success? Then, take for example creativity, how do you measure it?

  • Jodde Ticktin Mason

    Does the study discriminate between FLA and SLA bilingualism?

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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