Are bilinguals better at certain tasks than monolinguals?

I am so excited to share this blog post with you! Not only was it a lot of fun to create but Todd actually put it all together!  As the good scientist that he is, he came across some research and wanted to test it.  I’ll let him tell you the rest…. 

Are bilinguals better than monolinguals at certain tasks?

By Todd Du Bosq

As a monolingual, I am always amazed with the ease that Marianna can switch between English and Spanish.

The amazing part to me is that not only can she speak both languages fluently but she can also concurrently translates lengthy speeches (such as toasts at a family wedding) or translate an English book into Spanish without so much as a pause when reading to our daughter.

To other bilinguals, this is second nature to you and you do not give it much thought.  To me, I find it extremely impressive and fascinating.  The commonly known benefits of bilingualism (jobs, travel, communication, etc.) were enough to make the decision to raise our daughter bilingual easy.  But there are so many other factors that I did not realize.

I came across an academic article by Ellen Bialystok from York University where she describes the good, the bad, and the indifferent aspects of bilingualism.  As a scientist myself, I appreciated this scientific approach to bilingualism. Once you are equipped with the facts, you can make the best decision for your family.

For this post, I am going to focus on one aspect in “The Good” section that I had to investigate further.  The researchers were investigating executive control and conflict resolution. Well, what does this mean exactly?

They are trying to determine how a monolingual and bilingual brain manages cognitive processes (attention, memory, problem solving, decision making, comprehension, etc.) in the presence of conflict.  The conflict in this case is a note card with color written on it using a marker of a different color.


Stroop Test

This seems like a very cruel task.  The participants had to say the color of the marker not the word as fast as they could until they finished all of the cards in the pile.  The experiment is commonly referred to as the Stroop Test.

The research shows that bilinguals perform this task much more efficiently than monolinguals.

After reading this, I just had to test this result.  We had everything we needed: a monolingual (me), a bilingual (Marianna), and with a kid in the house, a craft box with index cards and markers.

Note: For the other scientists reading this, our home Stroop test is merely a fun exercise and not meant to be a statically relevant conclusion.  A larger sample size and larger number of trials would be needed, but the scientists in this field have already done that for us.

The Monolingual vs Bilingual battle begins!

Round 1: Baseline Test 1 – Same word and color

Marianna and I were probably going to name and flip to the next card at different speeds regardless of brain processing so we added a baseline test of 42 cards where the color names and actual colors are the same.  This would give us a “best case” time to compare the later results.  I went first and felt pretty good with a time of 36.95 seconds.

Marianna went next and blew through the cards in 36.48 seconds.

The difference in the baseline times showed the necessity of the baseline and that Marianna is going to be really good at this.

Round 2: Baseline Test 2 – Color recognition

How long does it take our brains to recognize colors and then say them?  Baseline 2 tested this by displaying “XXXX” in a given color on the note card while the participant had to say the color.  After my performance in Round 1, I knew that I had to prepare for Round 2 with some additional finger stretches and a drink of water.  I completed the test with a time close to Round 1 with a respectable 36.41 seconds.

Marianna not needing any additional preparation finished the round in 39.76 seconds.

But these are just the baseline numbers, the real test is how our Stroop test times compare to the baselines.

Round 3: Stroop Test – Words and colors are different

So how will my monolingual brain do with the conflicting color name to the actual color?  I was feeling confident.  I would just tell myself to ignore the letters and only focus on the colors.  It is always good to have a battle plan.  By card 4, my plan was falling apart and I was fighting my brain to fight all urges to do what I have trained it to do since I was a kid and read the word.  I fought through and finished with a time of 41.96 seconds.

Considering the conflict, I felt good about this time compared to my baseline times.  It was now Marianna’s turn to feel the anguish of conflict.  Without hesitation, Marianna flew through her Stroop test in 31.78 seconds.

Yeah that’s right, she beat her baseline times.  I felt deflated but reassured that there must be something to these findings and excited that my daughter will also have this cognitive advantage.

The previous tests were all done in English, so we felt that it may be fun for Marianna to repeat the three tests in Spanish.

I had two takeaways from her Spanish tests:  1) Marianna is really good at the Stroop test regardless of language, and  2) the Spanish colors have many more syllables than the English equivalent,  I was exhausted just listening to her say them.

After we were done, our daughter started playing with the cards saying the colors in English to me and Spanish to Marianna.  Oh yeah that’s right, the Stroop Test “conflict” is no problem for a preliterate 2 year old!

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