By Frances Blanchette
Do bilinguals and monolinguals think differently from one another?
This question has been the focus of a lot of recent research in language science, and as it turns out, in certain domains the answer is a resounding yes. But of course, as with most interesting questions, there’s a lot more to the answer than just a simple yes or no. In this piece, we’ve summarized some interesting recent findings for you.
Bilinguals and executive control
In recent decades, there has been a great deal of research showing that bilingual children and some bilingual adults demonstrate higher levels of “executive control” than monolinguals. So what is executive control, and why does it matter? When people select and monitor their own behavior to achieve a specific goal, they are using a kind of thinking called executive control. Researchers have demonstrated that bilinguals tend to be better at this kind of thinking. To illustrate, let’s play a little game. Below you see a list of words written in different colors. Try naming the color each word is written in. (For a little extra fun, try timing yourself.)
As you may have noticed, it’s pretty challenging to accomplish the goal of naming the colors in the face of conflicting information coming from the text. This task, called The Stroop Task, is therefore a good diagnostic of executive control.
We know from research that each time bilinguals speak, both of their languages are activated in the brain. This means that when bilinguals are getting ready to name something in one language, they have to inhibit information from the other language in order to say what they want to say. Researchers believe that this means bilinguals are exercising their executive control each time they speak, and that this is precisely what makes them so good at performing tasks like the Stroop Task, in which they have to ignore conflicting information to accomplish a goal.
What about people who speak more than one dialect?
Some people grow up speaking more than one version or dialect of the same language. For example, right here at Penn State there are people who in their home community speak a dialect of English called Appalachian, and who use a different dialect in the University setting. Recently, a group of researchers in Greece asked whether the executive control advantage we’ve seen in bilingual children can also be found in children who speak more than one dialect of the same language.
To answer this question, the researchers studied children who speak two dialects of Greek: Cypriot (spoken in Cyprus), and the “Standard Modern” version of Greek. They found that although the differences are not as pronounced as when we compare bilinguals with monolinguals, children who speak two dialects of Greek are better at performing tasks that measure executive control (like the Stroop Task) than monolinguals. What this means is that, in the domain of executive control, people who speak more than one dialect may think more like bilinguals than monolinguals.
Research on the relationship between bilectalism (speaking two dialects) and bilingualism is still very new, and many exciting questions are yet to be explored. We hope this summary serves as a good introduction, and inspires you to ask your own questions!
Dr. Kyriakos Antoniou and colleagues authored the Greek study, published in 2016 in the journal Cognition.