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Jackson 1 Kara Jackson Professor Katarzyna Dziwirek Honors 211 C 13 March 2013 Questioning Bilingual Advantage: A Neurolinguistic Review

Almost exactly on year ago today, an article unambiguously titled Why Bilinguals Are Smarter was published in the New York Times by Science writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee. The content of the piece matched its confident title: Bhattcharjee wrote Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age. Normally, one could reject such a extreme and reductive sounding article as a piece of pop science journalism written to sell magazines and pay no mind to the science (or pseudo-science) presented. However, this was in Americas most prestigious newspaper by a man who writes for Americas most prestigious scientific journal. It had at least some credence, with me and probably readers worldwide. Here is the key story put forward by the article: educators used to think that bilingualism impeded development because of cognitive interference. We now know that interference exists: there is evidence that both language systems are always active, even when one language is in use. But this interference isnt bad, its good, because it trains the brain to resolve conflict and learn to ignore information. According to Ellen Bialystok (2004), bilingual children are better at resolving conflicting information, as shown by certain task switching paradigms where

Jackson 2 subjects needed to ignore information about a previous task to perform the next task. From this experiment, and some of its follow ups, it was thought that the bilingual advantage arose via inhibition and the ability to suppress irrelevant information, but researchers now see that bilinguals are also better at other cognitive tasks that dont require inhibition, such monitoring ability. This bilingual advantage has been shown in both babies and adults, and has the possibility of shielding the brain from Alzheimers. I read the article especially closely, both because I was slightly dubious of the magnitude of its claims and because I was looking for an explanation to a mystery I didnt understand. My lab had been doing the same sort of bilingual research, and searching for the bilingual advantage through inhibitory tasks, but we had come up with nothing significant, no trends, nothing. We had accepted the bilingual advantage via inhibition as if it were a bonafide truth, and then we had to ask ourselves why our data wasnt supporting us. Perhaps the secret was, as Bhattcharjee said, that the advantage wasnt necessarily inhibitory? In this paper, I want to review the studies he puts forth as evidence for his claims as well as expand on the exciting bilingualism research that has occurred since the article was written. First, a bit of description about the terms that cognitive scientists like to use in experiments. Executive function, or executive control, is vaguely described as tasks of higher level thinking- planning, organizing, making decisions, and other complex stuff. There are various tests of executive function, and some of them test for specific components of executive function- the most mentioned is inhibition.

Jackson 3 Inhibition is the most often tested because of Ellen Bialystoks early success with inhibitory tasks. The tasks themselves are laborious to describe and demand their own vernacular, but perhaps the simplest example is the Stroop task. The stimulus is a color word, printed in a different colored ink (eg. the word blue written in red). The subject is instructed to say the color of the ink aloud, and the time from the presentation of the stimulus to the subjects spoken response in recorded. Because reading is an automatic process for literate humans, it is harder to name the ink color than it is to read the word, and in order to do so it is supposed that we inhibit the primary response and replace it a different response. Thats the core of most inhibition tasks: a test is set up to have a natural, non conflicting response, but gives the participant instructions that override, or inhibit, that response. The faster a participant can respond to a inhibitory task, the better they are said to be at resolving conflicting information. Perhaps understanding why bilinguals are better at inhibition than monolinguals is intuitive, but Marian and Shook describe the theory behind testing inhibitory control in the two groups well: Because both of a bilingual persons language systems are always active and competing, that person uses these control mechanisms every time she or he speaks or listens. This constant practice strengthens the control mechanisms and changes the associated brain regions. . . . .Bilingual people often perform better than monolingual people at tasks that tap into inhibitory control ability. Bilingual people are also better than monolingual people at switching between two tasks; for example, when bilinguals have to switch from categorizing objects by color (red or green) to categorizing them by shape (circle or triangle), they do so more rapidly than monolingual people, reflecting better cognitive control when changing strategies on the fly (Marian & Shook, 2012).

Jackson 4 Ellen Bialystok, of York University, is the leading researcher on the neural basis of bilingualism, and puts out about four articles or reviews a year on the topic. Her seminal research was mentioned in Why Bilinguals Are Smarter: when presented with a complex card sorting task where cards were sorted twice using multiple dimensions (color and shape), bilingual children outperformed monolingual children, presumably because they were able to ignore irrelevant information. However, the researchers also found that bilingual children were better at monolinguals at ignoring perceptual information on the cards, but both groups were the same at sorting based on semantic details, which was not mentioned in the article (Bialystok & Martin, 2004). However, although a large portion of her own research has been on inhibitory control, Bialystok recently wrote a review of the consequences of bilingualism for the brain in which she echoed the sentiments of the article. Early studies showing bilingual differences in performance focused primarily on inhibition, tracing the bilingual advantage in executive control to the need to inhibit the irrelevant but jointly activated language. . . Subsequent research, however, has challenged that interpretation; bilingual advantages have been found in preverbal infants long before any inhibition could be relevant, some types of inhibition have been implicated in these effects and others have not, and conditions that involved no inhibition appear to be equally affected. Therefore, the precise nature of how executive control is involved in bilingual performance is not clear (Bialystok et al., 2012) Most recently, Bialystok has narrowed her focus in on a different type of executive functioning, working memory. She paired groups of bilingual and monolingual children in tasks that involved holding different rules in the mind while manipulating a series of numbers. Bilinguals performed better than monolinguals, indicating indeed that the bilingual advantage is more widespread than just

Jackson 5 inhibition. However, in the discussion, Bialystok and her team brought up that these children performed equally well on a general intelligence test, and that the monolinguals, in keeping with other findings, had better English vocabularies and were faster at word naming (Morales, Calvo, & Bialystok, 2012) . It seems that the bilingual advantage is not so much an advantage as a redirection of resources in one direction, as there is a cost to bilinguals in comparison to monolinguals. Now we return to focus on the issues with inhibitory control and an increase in intelligence. Even if bilingualism is truly associated with an increase in inhibitory control, is inhibitory control always beneficial to cognition? In 2012, Anat Prior found that bilingualism was correlated with inhibition, but not necessarily in a good way. The participants were presented with a cue, either for color, shape, or size, and then presented with a stimulus (either red/green, small/large, circle/triangle) and would respond via keyboard. The questions were either asked in an order so that there were no repeats between conditions, or there were repeats. The theory is that in order to do multiple tasks, you have to continually inhibit the task you just did to focus on the task at hand, much like a bilingual might inhibit a language. Bilinguals took longer on the conflicting trials, which the author took to mean that they inhibited too much, or at least more than their monolingual counterparts. This effect is certainly related to executive control, but not in a way that makes the bilingual smarter. Finally, the most exciting recent news for the bilingual advantage comes from Gold et al., 2013. The researches compared monolinguals and bilinguals at two ages, 30s and 60s. The subjects did an inhibitory shape/color response test in an fMRI

Jackson 6 scanner, in order to capture information about their brain activation during a test. Both bilingual groups were faster at the inhibition tasks than their monolingual counterparts. However, the older group showed something especially interesting in the fMRI data: even though they were performing better than the monolingual group, they had less neural activation. Such results were taken to mean that the older bilinguals brains were more efficient and that they needed less neural resources to complete the same task as a monolingual. Recruiting multiple brain areas and more neural resources is common with aging, as the brain gets less efficient, so for bilingualism to potentially attenuate this decay is hugely important. Does bilingualism make you smarter? I think the article overstates its case, especially since I think most researchers are careful to stay away from making conclusions about general intelligence, and seek to find ways in which language exposure augments and changes thought subtly. Certainly, all research indicates that there are processing differences in executive function between monolinguals and bilinguals, with bilinguals tending to have the advantage. However, the brain has limited resources, and a gain in one area is often associate with loss in anotherfor bilinguals, word production and recognition, naming tasks, and vocabulary have been found to be lower than matched groups of monolinguals. However, the bilingual bias towards better executive control may have tremendous implications for the brain as we age, and forthcoming research is sure to further elucidate the relationship between bilingualism and protecting the brain.

Jackson 7 Works Cited Bhattcharjee, Yudhijit. Why Bilinguals Are Smarter. The New York Times. 17 March 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefitsof-bilingualism.html Bialystok, E., Craik, F. & Luk, G. Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in cognitive sciences 16, 24050 (2012). Bialystok, E. & Martin, M. Attention and inhibition in bilingual children: evidence from the dimensional change card sort task.Developmental science 7, 32539 (2004). Gold, B., Kim, C., Johnson, N., Kryscio, R. & Smith, C. Lifelong bilingualism maintains neural efficiency for cognitive control in aging. The Journal of neuroscience: the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience 33, 38796 (2013). Marian, V. & Shook, A. The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science 2012, 13 (2012). Morales, J., Calvo, A. & Bialystok, E. Working memory development in monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of experimental child psychology 114, 187202 (2013) Prior, A. Too much of a good thing: stronger bilingual inhibition leads to larger lag-2 task repetition costs. Cognition 125, 112 (2012).