Research from Concordia University has confirmed that exposing young children to multiple sets of vocabulary, or encouraging bilingualism, is greatly beneficial to their cognitive abilities.

The Canadian study sought to analyse the influence of bilingualism upon the problem-solving skills of toddlers. Scientists found that children who were used to switching between two languages demonstrated more advanced levels of cognitive flexibility than their monolingual counterparts.

Researchers note that learning to switch fluently and coherently between two different tongues is no easy feat, but once the skill is firmly ingrained, our ability to supersede a previously-learned behaviour in favour of a conflicting intention greatly improves, which in turn boosts our ability to tackle problems we encounter.

“The switching becomes more frequent as children grow older and as their vocabulary size increases,” said psychologist Diane Poulin-Dubois of Concordia University. “Therefore, the superior performance on these conflict tasks appears to be due to bilinguals’ strengthened cognitive flexibility and selective attention abilities as they have increased experience in switching across languages in expressive vocabulary.”

The study saw researchers evaluate the vocabularies of 39 bilingual toddlers and compare them with the abilities of 43 monolingual peers. The assessment was carried out over two study sessions, seven months apart, with one test conducted when participants were 24 months old and the second at 31 months old.

When it came to vocabulary, bilingualism did not significantly influence lexical abilities, but benefits really shone through in the non-verbal aspects of the test.

In order to analyse problem-solving skills, the children participated in a reverse categorisation activity, which required them to place little blocks in a little bucket and big blocks in a big bucket before being asked to reverse what they had sorted, so the little blocks went in the big bucket and vice versa. They also undertook a shape conflict task, where they were shown a set of images with small fruits embedded in a picture of a larger fruit, in which the children were asked to point out the small fruit, ignoring the more prominent image.

The results demonstrate that bilingual children to have stronger abilities in conflict solving tasks, as they consistently outperformed monolingual participants.

“In conflict inhibition, the child has to ignore certain information – the size of a block relative to a bucket, or the fact that one fruit is inside another,” said Cristina Crivello, a key researcher in the study. “That mirrors the experience of having to switch between languages, using a second language even though the word from a first language might be more easily accessible.

Findings from the study have been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Image via Shutterstock.

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