Bilingualism boosts cognitive capacity for low-income children

headshot of Ellen Bialystok

Bilingualism may be key to helping children from low-income families improve their focus and concentration, giving them an academic advantage over their monolingual peers, according to a recent study by an international team of researchers, including York University Professor Ellen Bialystok.

“For children living in poverty, there are often conditions present that can negatively affect cognitive development,” says Bialystok, headshot of Ellen BialystokDistinguished Research Professor in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. “Our study is the first to show that bilingualism can override some of the cognitive deficits associated with low socio-economic status.”

Ellen Bialystok

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, followed a total of 80 second-graders from low-income families. Half of the children were first or second generation immigrants to Luxembourg, originally from Northern Portugal, who spoke both Luxembourgish and Portuguese on a daily basis. The other half of the children lived in Northern Portugal and spoke only Portuguese.

The children were first tested on their vocabulary and asked to name items presented in pictures. Both groups completed the task in Portuguese and the bilingual children also completed the task in Luxembourgish.

To examine how the children represented knowledge in memory, the researchers asked them to find a missing piece that would complete a specific geometric shape. They also measured how much visual information the children could keep in mind at a given time. The children then participated in tasks that looked at their ability to direct and focus their attention when distractions were present.

Although the bilingual children knew fewer words than their monolingual peers, and did not show an advantage for memory tasks, they performed better on the control task in which they needed to direct and focus their attention when distractions were present.

The researchers say in-school immersion programs could be a promising tool toward reducing the achievement gap between more- and less-advantaged children by contributing to the construction of a sound cognitive foundation.

“In previous research, bilingualism has been shown to be a powerful force in shaping developing minds,” says Bialystok. “This is the first evidence that it can also compensate for some of the cognitive disadvantages associated with poverty and boost children’s executive control ability, arguably the most important cognitive system we have.”

Psychological Science
is the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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