May 21, 2015

Study shows bilingual children are better communicators

A new study from the University of Chicago Department of Psychology has found that children exposed to multiple languages at home become better communicators, due to an enhanced ability to take other perspectives and interpret a speaker’s intended meaning.

“There are many cognitive and social advantages to being bilingual,” said Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology, expert on communication and cognition, and co-author of the study. “But our study shows a great advantage to just being exposed to another language.”

The study involved 72 children between the ages of four and six divided into three groups, each based on a particular language background: monolinguals, those who heard and spoke only English; exposures, those who primarily heard and spoke English, but had some regular exposure to another language; and bilinguals, those who were exposed to two languages and could speak and understand both.

Participating children sat on one side of a table across from an adult to play a communication game that required moving objects in a grid. The child could see all of the objects, but the adult could not. The children first played the game from the adult’s side to ensure they understood the adult’s partially obstructed vision.

During the test, the adult would ask the child to move an object in the grid. If the child were asked to move the small car, for instance, the child would have to take into account that while he or she could see three cars of small, medium, and large sizes, the adult could only see two: the medium and the large ones. To correctly interpret the adult’s intended meaning, the child would have to move the medium car.

“In our game we created a situation in which the literal content of someone’s communication differed from that person’s intended meaning,” said Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology, expert on language and social development, and another co-author of the study. “If the child were just listening to the literal content, he or she would pick the smallest car without thinking about what the other person sees and knows.”

The monolingual children moved the correct object about 50 percent of the time, whereas children in the exposure group chose correctly 76 percent of the time, and in the bilingual group, 77 percent of the time.

“I think the most exciting finding is that kids with exposure to more than one language—even if they are not bilinguals themselves—show the same benefits as the bilingual kids,” said Kinzler. “This seems to be a phenomenon that is not about being bilingual per se, but rather about being raised in an environment where multiple languages are spoken.”

Keysar used the example of his wife, who speaks only English but grew up surrounded by Korean, to illustrate the study’s results.

“Though she didn’t learn the language, she got intensive training in perspective taking,” he explained. “She constantly had to keep track of who knows what language and who can understand whom, even though she could not understand what they were saying. We discovered that this kind of exposure provides the child with an essential communication tool—children that had such exposure were much better at taking the perspective of another person in our study than children without such multi-language exposure.”

Co-author of the study Zoe Liberman, a doctoral student in psychology, is in the process of spearheading an effort to test this study’s hypothesis with infants, to determine whether the advantages of multilingual exposure emerge even earlier in life.