Sardinian and Scottish study proves that bilingual children are top of the class
A new study from a Sardinian-Scottish research team has shown that bilingual children outperform their monolingual classmates when it comes to problem-solving skills and creative thinking.
Writing in the International Journal of Bilingualism, the researchers, from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, United Kingdom, and the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, Italy, present the findings from their study of bilingual and monolingual primary school pupils in regions where a minority language survives.
In Scotland, they analysed a group of children who spoke English - half of whom also spoke Scottish Gaelic; on the Italian island of Sardinia, they analysed a group of children who spoke Italian - half of whom also spoke Sardinian. In both regions, they found that the bilingual children were significantly more successful in the tasks set for them.
The research was carried out in Dorgalì, Sardinia, and Stornoway, Scotland. A school in each location with sufficient numbers of bilingual (who spoke either Italian and Sardinian or English and Scottish Gaelic) and monolingual children (who spoke either Italian only or English only) was chosen.
The children, all aged around nine, were set tasks in English or Italian: reproducing patterns of coloured blocks, repeating orally a series of numbers, giving clear definitions of words and resolving mentally a set of arithmetic problems.
'Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them,' says lead study author Dr Fraser Lauchlan from the University of Strathclyde. 'Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively.'
Although an existing body of previous research supports the idea that to gain from the advantages of bilingualism a speaker must be equally proficient in both languages, few studies consider the cognitive benefits of bilingualism where one of the second languages is a so-called 'minority' language, such as Catalan, Basque, Scottish Gaelic or Sardinian. Most studies focus on speakers who are proficient in two well-recognised international languages such as French, English, Spanish, Italian, Russian or Portuguese.
Sardinia and Scotland were chosen for being an autonomous region and a country respectively where a minority language is spoken by an increasingly small proportion of their respective populations. Both regions' governments have also recently introduced legislation to promote and help preserve these respective minority languages: the Sardinian Regional Law that enshrines 'The promotion and development of the Sardinian culture and language' and the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act, 2005, which gave effect to the principle that the Gaelic and English languages should be accorded equal respect.
Dr Fraser Lauchlan expands on the study's findings: 'We also assessed the children's vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils. We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention - the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not - which could come from the "code-switching" of thinking in two different languages.'
Interestingly the study also found that the Scottish Gaelic-speaking children were, in turn, more successful than the Sardinian speakers. These differences were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could help develop skills useful in other types of thinking.
This could be down to the advantages Scottish Gaelic-speaking children have over Sardinian-speaking children in terms of how the formal way in which the language has been taught and the extensiveness of its literature. In contrast, Sardinian is not widely taught in schools and has a largely oral tradition, which means there is currently no standardised form of the language.
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Document Reference: Lauchlan, F. et al. 'Bilingualism in Sardinia and Scotland: Exploring the cognitive benefits of speaking a "minority" language', International Journal of Bilingualism, 2012. doi:10.1177/1367006911429622.
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