Experiment. Are bilingual people more proficient at multitasking between cognitive tasks?

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Student Research Project


This study aims to investigate whether bilingualism causes improved cognitive ability to motivate students to learn a second language and become global citizens who have proficient understanding of different cultures and globally significant issues. This is conducted through a cognitive test in which you multitask between simple computer tasks and memorisation. The results suggest a small difference in monolingual and bilingual abilities, with monolinguals being more proficient, yet it was inconclusive as there was difficulty finding enough monolingual participants. This illustrates how most of Australia speaks a second language, either from their cultural background or learning at school.

Research question

Are bilingual people more proficient at multitasking between cognitive tasks?

Background research

The world’s understanding of bilingualism has dramatically shifted over the turn of the century. Scientists, teachers and the general public long considered a second language to be an interference to children’s cognitive development. However, recent research has shown that it can have a great impact on your brain, improving cognitive skills unrelated to language and even protecting against dementia in old age.

When a bilingual person uses one language, the other is active at the same time. This is called language co-activation. This can be seen during speech recognition when the brain’s language system guesses what a word is based on the first syllables heard. For instance, if you hear “can”, it will likely activate words such as “candy” and “candle”. For bilingual people, this is not restricted to a single language and the brain will activate corresponding words irrespective of which language they belong to. This is illustrated in a 2003 study, where the eye movements of English speakers and Russian-English bilinguals were studied. In one trial, they were asked to pick up a marker from a set of objects. It was discovered that people who knew Russian looked more at a stamp than people who didn’t, because the Russian word for stamp, “marka”, sounds like ‘marker’. Language co-activation can cause problems. For example, it can take longer for bilingual people to name pictures and it can increase tip-of-the-tongue moments, situations where you’re unable to recall the correct word, although you remember specific details about it.

The constant conflict between two known languages creates a need to suppress one at any given time. This is an important skill to ensure good communication without interference from the other language. Therefore, due to constant practice whenever they speak or listen, bilingual people have stronger control mechanisms.  

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 Bilingual people are often superior in tasks testing conflict management and inhibitory control because they have experience disregarding irrelevant stimuli in their daily lives. In the classic Stroop task, participants are required to read given words and name the colour of the word’s font. For example, if they are given the word “red” printed in yellow, their task is to say “yellow”. Bilingual people have an advantage here because they can better manage the conflict between the word and font colour, therefore easily being able to ignore the irrelevant word with their inhibitory control.

 Bilingual people’s advantages in executive ...

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