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Being bilingual does not make you smarter

1 September 2014

Bilingual road sign
Image shared by Amanda Slater on Wikimedia 

The widely held belief that being bilingual makes you smarter is being challenged by psychologists in a newly published paper.

Writing in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, a group of language experts from Abertay University describe how they began – quite unintentionally - to unravel one of current psychology’s big myths: that being bilingual makes you smarter.

Professor Vera Kempe and her colleagues began their latest research assuming - like everyone else - that a cognitive advantage in bilinguals was an established fact.

Based on this assumption, they wanted to see whether there was a similar cognitive advantage to speaking two dialects - something that had not been looked at before.

To find out, they compared cognitive control in a group of people who switch between speaking the very distinctive Dundonian dialect and Standard Scottish English, with cognitive control in two other groups: those who speak two languages, and those who speak only one.

To their great surprise, their research produced some wholly unexpected results, contradicting everything they thought they knew: the bilingual control groups performed no better in the cognitive task than those who spoke only one language and those who spoke in a dialect.

There were no differences whatsoever.

Professor Kempe explains why this is an important finding:

“When we started our research, we were convinced - like everybody else - that there was an advantage to being bilingual, but when we carried out our analysis, we were astonished by the results.

“Although we had replicated the original study to the letter, we found no benefit in either of our bilingual groups; neither in the Gaelic-English bilinguals, nor the bilinguals speaking a variety of Asian languages.

“At first we were stumped. How could this be? How could we have failed to find an effect, when we knew there was supposed to be one?

“When we began to dig deeper, we discovered that - far from being an anomaly - our study is actually one in a now growing number of studies that fail to find that bilingualism makes you smarter.

“In other words, there is actually no conclusive evidence that bilingualism makes you smarter.”

Referring to something called ‘publication bias’ - where a study only gets published if an effect is found - the authors point out that, at present, it is misleading for educational policy recommendations to be based on the belief that learning languages makes you smarter when it is not yet clear whether this is true.

Publication bias is a long-standing problem, and is one of the main causes for this myth about bilingualism having been created.

Professor Kempe continues:

“Saying that ‘some scientists carried out a study, but didn’t find anything’, doesn’t make for a very good story - and that is where the problem lies.

“There is so much pressure to demonstrate novelty and real-life impact that it has sometimes been difficult for scientists to get studies published if they haven’t found something startling and newsworthy.

“Other factors that come with being bilingual - like being an immigrant or coming from a culture which values mentally challenging activities - may be responsible for a benefit in some instances.

“Psychologists are working hard to find out whether studying more languages and knowing them well can really make a difference to mental agility, but so far we simply do not have conclusive evidence.

“What we can do in the meanwhile, though, is to encourage everybody - especially young people - to learn languages not based on the selfish motive of boosting individual brain power, but because knowing languages affords us the opportunity to connect with different people from different backgrounds and cultures.

“Perhaps being able to see the world from another point of view is the most beneficial and mind-enhancing effect that comes with learning languages.”


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Notes to Editors:

  • Vera Kempe is Professor of the Psychology of Language Learning at Abertay University. Born in Russia and brought up in the former East Berlin in Germany, Professor Kempe is fluent in Russian, German and English.
  • This research was carried out by PhD student Neil Kirk. The paper is entitled ‘No evidence for reduced Simon cost in elderly bilinguals and bidialectals’.
  • The cognitive test that was used is known as the Simon task, which enables psychologists to examine inhibitory control.

Originally it was proposed that bilingualism helps suppress irrelevant information – needed, for example, when trying to ignore the intrusively loud conversations of fellow train passengers while attempting to read your newspaper.

Since bilinguals constantly have to suppress one language while using the other, it was assumed that over time they get better at suppressing irrelevant information in general, not just in the context of using language.

Neil’s research - and that of many others - has shown that this is, in fact, not an established fact after all and that further research is needed before claims that being bilingual makes you smarter can be made.

  • The average age of the 80 participants in this study was 70. The ages ranged from 60 to 89 years.

16 bilingual participants were speakers of Gaelic and Standard Scottish English. They were recruited from the Western Isles and the West coast of Scotland.

16 bilinguals were speakers of English and either Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malay, Punjabi or Urdu who had immigrated to the UK before the age of 35. They were recruited from London and Dundee.

16 bidialectals were speakers and regular users of Standard Scottish English and Dundonian. They were recruited from Dundee.

16 monodialectals spoke Standard Scottish English, but had regular exposure to, and could understand (but did not use) the Dundonian dialect. They were recruited from Dundee.

16 monolinguals were speakers of Anglo-English, spoken in the South of England. They were recruited from different parts of England and Scotland.

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