A Canadian study has found a new benefit to being bilingual, with children who speak two languages better at problem solving than monolingual children.
Published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the research looked at vocabularies of 39 bilingual children and 43 monolingual children at the age of 24 months and then again at 31 months.
During the second assessment, the team tested the toddlers' cognitive flexibility and memory skills and found that "For the most part, there was no difference between the bilingual and monolingual toddlers," said Diane Poulin-Dubois, one of the study's authors. "But that changed dramatically when it came to the conflict inhibition test, and the differences were especially apparent in the bilingual toddlers whose vocabulary had increased most."
Conflict inhibition is the mental process used by the brain to override a well-learned rule that you would normally pay attention to. To assess the toddler's conflict inhibition the team gave the children two tests.
In the first, called Reverse categorization, the children were asked to put small blocks into a small bucket and large blocks into a large bucket. The task was then reversed, with the children asked to put the small blocks into the big buckets, and the big blocks into the small bucket.
In the second task, Shape conflict, the children were shown pictures of different sized fruit and asked to name them. They were then shown another new set of images, with a small fruit embedded inside a larger one, with the children asked to point to the little fruit.
From these tests the researchers saw that the bilingual children significantly outperformed the monolingual children, with the team believing that the bilingual children's superiority in this area is due to being able to switch between languages, "In conflict inhibition, the child has to ignore certain information -- the size of a block relative to a bucket, or the fact that one fruit is inside another. That mirrors the experience of having to switch between languages, using a second language even though the word from a first language might be more easily accessible," said Cristina Crivello, another of the study's co-authors.
The researchers also found that the more the toddlers switched languages, and the more "doublets" -- pairs of words in each language, such as 'dog'/'chien' -- they had acquired, the better they performed on the conflict inhibition tasks.
"This switching becomes more frequent as children grow older and as their vocabulary size increases," says Poulin-Dubois, "By the end of the third year of life, the average bilingual child uses two words for most concepts in his or her vocabulary, so young bilingual children gradually acquire more experience in switching between languages."