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Can bilingualism combat negative effects of poverty on the brain?

research news

Pre-school bilinguals are better at regulating behaviour, despite poor backgrounds.
Bilingualism could help protect children’s brain development from the negative effects of growing up in poverty, researchers at the University of Oregon said.

‘We know that [children from lower socio-economic backgrounds] are at risk of not developing cognitive abilities that are important for academic success at the same pace as higher socio-economic background peers,’ leading author Jimena Santillan told the Gazette. ‘I was interested to study whether bilingualism could be a protective factor for children growing up in these conditions’.

Researchers say that children growing up in poor families are at risk of their executive function being underdeveloped by the time they reach pre-school – and are more likely to find it hard to listen or behave appropriately in class.

Santillan’s study found that pupils who were or were becoming bilingual showed a faster growth in their ability to regulate their behaviour than their monolingual counterparts.

This ability – known as inhibitory control – is the skill of suppressing an instinctive response and selecting a more appropriate one – for example, focusing on a lesson instead of chatting with classmates.

This is important for academic success, but social development too, explained Santillan.

Other studies have found similar results, but this is the first longitudinal study involving children from a lower socio-economic background, the researchers say.

The research analysed data from 1146 pre-schoolers from either English or Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Their development of inhibitory control was tested three times over 18 months during the transition period from preschool to kindergarten.

The data was drawn from the longitudinal Family and Child Experiences Survey 2009, which focused on children participating in the Head Start programme, a pre-school preparatory programme for disadvantaged families in the US.

Inhibitory control was checked with a ‘pencil-tapping test’. Children were asked to tap the pencil once when the examiner tapped twice, and vice versa.

Success in this task depends on the ability to suppress the instinct to imitate the examiner while at the same time keeping in mind the rules of the task.

Results were compared across three groups: English monolinguals, English-Spanish bilinguals, and Spanish monolinguals learning English – this last group was tested in Spanish in the first two tests.

Controlling for a range of variables, including socio-economic status, age and language proficiency, the study found that children in the bilingual and ‘transition’ groups showed a faster development of inhibitory control than those in the monolingual group.

Children in the transition group showed lower inhibitory control performance in the first test, but their rate of development exceeded that of monolinguals and was comparable to that of their bilingual peers. Bilinguals outperformed both monolingual and transition groups.

According to the authors, this signals that the length of the bilingual experience is a driving factor in the differences in IC development. The study is part of the ongoing research into the bilingual advantage hypothesis.

This is the idea that bilinguals, having to continually juggle between their languages – selecting the relevant language and suppressing the other one – reap cognitive benefits that go beyond the language domain.

This could have important implications for policy makers and educationalists, but more research is needed, said Santillan.

‘The research is inconsistent on bilingual advantage. A lot of research is still needed to be able to corroborate that the bilingual advantage is a real thing,’ she said. ‘But provided that more research does support our findings, the existence of a bilingual advantage – particular in children from lower socio economic background – could have implications.’

Santillan said that for example families could be encouraged to raise children as bilinguals. ‘We are doing the study in the context of the US, where there are a lot of immigrant families who tend to dismiss their own language in favour of English – we could encourage families to keep their own language and to raise children as bilingual,’ she explained.

If further research supports these findings, bilingual education could almost be considered ‘an intervention to foster this protective factor for cognitive development’, Santillan added.