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What do bilinguals have that monolinguals don't?

An EU-funded project seeks to determine how lifelong bilingualism impacts inhibitory control and mental shifting. Another area of investigation is whether these cognitive skills offer predictive value in understanding individual differences in the outcomes of foreign language learning.
What do bilinguals have that monolinguals don't?
To meet its objectives, the 'Bilingualism, foreign language learning and executive control' (PREDICTING FLL) project has carried out two large-scale experimental studies that compared monolingual English speakers and three bilingual populations. The latter comprise Hebrew–English, Spanish–English and Mandarin–English. The approach builds on recent research indicating that bilinguals might enjoy enhanced executive function, a set of general purpose control mechanisms that regulate cognition and action. The idea is that use of these domain-general mechanisms facilitates the management of competition between two languages.

The first study, comparing monolingual speakers of English with bilingual Hebrew–English speakers, showed that the latter were better at inhibiting information in a task calling for a dynamic shift between various task sets. In the second study, monolingual English speakers were compared with populations of Spanish–English and Mandarin–English speakers.

Taken together, the results of studies conducted to date point to lifelong bilingualism having a positive influence on general cognitive abilities such as inhibition and cognitive flexibility. However, the impact is not uniform across all bilingual groups. Project researchers believe this may be due to the particularities of each individual's bilingual experience.

For the second project objective — to better understand the possible involvement of executive functions in foreign language learning — team members conducted a study on Hebrew-speaking students. All students in this group have studied English as a foreign language in a formal instructional setting. Study data are still being analysed, and a second study is ongoing to collect data on Arabic-speaking university students who have acquired Hebrew as a second language.

Results from the first part of the study have implications for language policy and planning, from the individual to the national levels. They also offer evidence for the way in which life experiences can shape cognitive functions. The results from the second part of the study are expected to help expand on present models for the cognitive underpinnings enabling successful foreign language learning. As such, these outcomes may provide a basis for reshaping the pedagogy of foreign language instruction.

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