It’s widely believed that teaching a young child a second language will benefit them cognitively.
However, a paper published in the “PLOS One” peer-reviewed journal written by clinical assistant professor of theory and practice in teacher education Nils Jaekel and associate professor of child and family studies Julia Jaekel, suggests otherwise.
The report detailed an experiment that the scientists conducted to determine the cognitive advantages, if any, bilingual children from the ages of five to 15 had over monolingual children of the same age.
The study, entitled “No evidence for effects of Turkish immigrant children‘s bilingualism on executive functions,” was composed jointly by the Jaekels, as well as Jessica Willard and Birgit Leyendecker, faculty members in the developmental psychology department of Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.
The study was conducted in the northwestern Ruhr area of Germany, from where the sample population was selected. The bilingual group comprised 242 Turkish immigrant children of second and third-generation who were born and raised in Germany.
As a control, 92 ethnically German, monolingual children were also sampled in the experiment. For both groups, the children selected were intended to represent the typical population: no special needs or foster children were sampled and all the subjects attended schools where German was the primary language taught and spoken.
The experiment, involving a backwards counting test, vocabulary tests for both German and Turkish and a computer task called “Hearts and Flowers,” was designed to test “executive functions,” advanced cognitive capacities that allow individuals to adapt to new scenarios and orient their actions toward a specific goal.
“Hearts and Flowers” first presents a simple game: if a heart appears on a screen, the subject must press a key on the same side of the screen as the heart appears. This task tests a child’s ability to understand and integrate a new rule or idea.
Next, the task presents a new rule: if a flower appears on the screen, press the key on the opposite side of the screen as the flower appears. This game tests a child’s ability to switch between sets of rules.
Lastly, the program combines these rules, showing both hearts and flowers, forcing a child to critically apply and inhibit either rule when necessary.
In their paper, the Jaekels reported that, controlling for factors such as gender and age, the ability to speak two languages gave the sampled children no advantage at high-level cognitive tasks.
Although Julia and Nils Jaekel were unavailable to comment at this time, Brian Canever, the UT public relations specialist who was a liaison between the researchers and other media outlets, stressed that the Jaekels don’t want their data to be misconstrued.
“I know the Jaekels will emphasize the study does not say bilingualism is not beneficial,” Canever said. “It just doesn’t show benefits to executive functions in children from five to 15 years old.”
The research, while intriguing, is not totally conclusive — the sample size was limited to a specific age group which can’t represent the entirety of the population. It doesn’t show that bilingualism isn’t ever cognitively beneficial, nor does it show that bilingualism can hurt a child’s executive functions.
Dennis Ross, freshman majoring in supply chain management, concurred with the results of the Jaekels’ experiment, citing his own personal experience as a Taiwanese American.
“I don’t believe that being bilingual has given me any major advantage over any monolingual peers,” Ross said.
Ross noted that the cognitive boon that speakers of multiple languages seem to possess may be dependent on other factors.
“We grew up hearing how learning another language has a huge effect on how students do in school, but … it feels like if a student is willing to put the effort into learning a language fluently, they normally have a similar drive in other areas.”
Leyendecker, Willard and the Jaekel’s full publication can be read on the “PLOS One” journal’s website.