Bilingual Advantages

Contributions of Different Bilingual Experiences to Cognitive Control Differences Among Young-adult Bilinguals

by Zhilong Xie (Author)
©2016 Thesis 221 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 213


The question whether bilingualism is linked to benefits in cognitive control (executive functions) is intensely debated among linguists. While some studies come to the conclusion that bilingual individuals consistently outperform their monolingual counterparts on tasks involving cognitive control, other studies argue that there is no coherent evidence showing that bilingual advantages actually exist. This opposing view results from two inadequately investigated perspectives, namely the complexities of bilingualism and the multifaceted nature of cognitive control.
This publication combines these two perspectives and presents a new approach towards the analysis of bilingual advantage. It discusses the results of a combined analysis of both specific bilingual experiences and specific aspects of cognitive control.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Bilingual Experience and Cognitive Control
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Definition of Terms
  • 1.3 Motivation
  • 1.4 Current Focus
  • 1.5 Research Overview
  • Chapter 2: Bilingual Advantage
  • 2.1 Bilingual Language Processing Mechanism
  • 2.1.1 Bilingual Language Processing
  • 2.1.2 Bilingual Lexical Selection
  • 2.1.3 Language Control Mechanism
  • 2.2 Cognitive Impact of Bilingualism
  • 2.2.1 Bilingual Disadvantages
  • 2.2.2 Bilingual Advantages
  • 2.3 Bilingual Advantage in Cognitive Control
  • 2.3.1 Measurement of Cognitive Control
  • 2.3.2 Evidence of Bilingual Advantage
  • 2.3.3 Relevant Factors Affecting Cognitive Control
  • 2.4 Summary
  • Chapter 3: Research Rationale and Questions
  • 3.1 Research Rationale
  • 3.2 Research Questions
  • 3.3 Research Hypotheses
  • 3.4 Research Design
  • 3.5 Summary
  • Chapter 4: Experiment One – Bilingual Advantage in the Chinese Context
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 Specific Background
  • 4.3 Method
  • 4.3.1 Participants
  • 4.3.2 Materials and Procedure
  • 4.4 Result
  • 4.4.1 Data Trimming
  • 4.4.2 Flanker Task
  • 4.4.3 Number Stroop Task
  • 4.4.4 WCST
  • 4.5 Discussion
  • 4.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: Experiment Two – L2 Proficiency and Cognitive Control
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Specific Background
  • 5.3 Method
  • 5.3.1 Participants
  • 5.3.2 Materials and Procedure
  • 5.4 Result
  • 5.4.1 Data Trimming
  • 5.4.2 Flanker Task
  • 5.4.3 Number Stroop Task
  • 5.4.4 WCST
  • 5.5 Discussion
  • 5.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter 6: Experiment Three – Language Interpreting Experience and Cognitive Control
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Specific Background
  • 6.3 Method
  • 6.3.1 Participants
  • 6.3.2 Materials and Procedure
  • 6.4 Result
  • 6.4.1 Data Trimming
  • 6.4.2 Flanker Task
  • 6.4.3 Number Stroop Task
  • 6.4.4 WCST
  • 6.5 Discussion
  • 6.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter 7: Experiment Four – Public Speaking Experience and Cognitive Control
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 Specific Background
  • 7.3 Method
  • 7.3.1 Participants
  • 7.3.2 Materials and Procedures
  • 7.4 Result
  • 7.4.1 Data Trimming
  • 7.4.2 Flanker Task
  • 7.4.3 Number Stroop Task
  • 7.4.4 WCST
  • 7.5 Discussion
  • 7.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter 8: General Discussion
  • 8.1 Summary of the Results
  • 8.2 Bilingual Experiences and Aspects of Cognitive Control
  • 8.2.1 Bilingual Experiences and Inhibition
  • 8.2.2 Public Speaking Experience and Conflict Monitoring
  • 8.2.3 L2 Proficiency, Language Interpreting, and Mental Set Shifting
  • 8.3 The Incoherence Problem
  • 8.4 Summary
  • Chapter 9: Conclusions and Implications
  • 9.1 Major Findings of the Current Research
  • 9.2 Theoretical and Practical Implications
  • 9.3 Limitations
  • 9.4 Future Directions
  • References

← 10 | 11 →

Chapter 1:    Bilingual Experience and Cognitive Control

More and more people in this world today are speaking two (or more) languages. Speaking two languages makes language processing very complicated. Moreover, managing two languages places huge demands on the cognitive system and therefore may affect many aspects of cognitive development. Accumulating evidence has shown that bilingual experience has a systematic and significant impact on cognitive control. What remains unresolved is how a specific bilingual experience contributes to changes of cognitive control. The current research intends to shed light on this issue.

1.1   Introduction

Some early studies (e.g., Saer, 1923; Smith, 1923) report that learning two languages is detrimental to bilingual learners’ intelligence. In later years, it was reported that the vocabulary size of monolinguals is larger than that of bilinguals in that language (Pearson, Fernandez, & Oller, 1993). This result is also supported by a more recent study (Bialystok, Luk, Peets, & Yang, 2010), which finds that the mean standard of monolinguals is reliably higher than that of compared bilinguals. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that learning two languages may cause some disadvantages to bilinguals.

However, more and more studies have shown that for bilinguals learning two languages, this learning has a significant and positive impact on their cognitive functioning. A study by Peal and Lambert (1962) initiated a significant trend of research on bilingual advantage. They found that bilinguals have an advantage on tests requiring symbol manipulation and reorganization. They suggest that having to switch ← 11 | 12 → between the two languages might be the reason that causes the enhanced mental flexibility, superiority in concept formation, and diversified mental abilities (Peal & Lambert, 1962).

More recently, the effect of bilingualism on cognitive control has been an area of great interest. Much research suggests that bilinguals have advantage over their monolingual counterparts when they perform cognitive control tasks (Bialystok, 2011; Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004; Bialystok, Craik, Green, & Gollan, 2009; Bialystok, Craik, & Ryan, 2006). This cognitive control advantage has been detected among child bilinguals relative to their monolingual peers (e.g., Bialystok, Barac, Blaye, & Poulin-Dubois, 2010) and among older adult bilinguals who showed delayed cognitive decline compared with their monolingual counterparts (e.g., Bialystok, Craik, & Freedman, 2007). In fact, some studies have also shown that young-adult bilinguals have cognitive control advantage relative to their counterpart monolinguals, at least in some cognitive control tasks (Bialystok, 2009; Costa, Hernandez, Costa-Faidella, & Sebastian-Galles, 2009; Prior & Gollan, 2011; Prior & Macwhinney, 2010), although a few studies have failed to capture this advantage, particularly in behavioral measures under low cognitive demand (Bialystok, Craik, & Ryan, 2006; Costa et al., 2009; Luk, Anderson, Craik, Grady, & Bialystok, 2010).

Besides behavioral results, ERPs (Event related potentials) studies show that there is a language control mechanism required to regulate and control the use of different languages and to prevent interference between them. In a recent study, an inhibitory effect (N200) was detected in on-line bilingual processing (Moreno, Rodrıguez-Fornells, & Laine, 2008). Moreover, in functional and structural neuroimaging studies (fMRI) (e.g., Abutalebi et al., 2012; Hervais-Adelman, Moser-Mercer, Michel, & Golestani, 2014) it is demonstrated that a structure tightly bound to domain-general cognitive control functions (e.g., dorsal anterior cingulate cortex ACC, the caudate nucleus), is a common locus for language control and resolving nonverbal conflict. Because of the need to switch between two alternate languages and because of the need to inhibit one over the other in order to use the target language, bilinguals use this common locus more frequently and more efficiently than monolinguals, so this advantage in language control very likely transfers to ← 12 | 13 → resolving nonlinguistic cognitive conflicts in domain-general cognitive control tasks, leading to bilingual advantage.

1.2   Definition of Terms

There are two general terms requiring definition for the convenience of the following discussions. More detailed descriptions and discussions of the relevant terms will be presented in the literature review section.

The first general term is bilingualism. Bilingualism may have different definitions in different academic fields. “Bilingualism” should be understood to include knowledge of any number of languages beyond one (Valian, 2014). For the current perspective, bilingualism refers generally to the state of speaking/learning two languages (Bialystok et al., 2009). There are two distinct categories of bilingualism. The first is simultaneous bilingualism in which people take one language as the official language and at the same time take another language as their daily language in life. In this category, the learning of two languages often takes place simultaneously at early childhood, and bilinguals in this case are often balanced bilingual speakers. The second type of bilingualism is sequential bilingualism in which people learn a second or foreign language in a late age after the acquisition of their mother tongue. Learning two languages takes place sequentially, and in this case bilinguals are often unbalanced bilingual speakers.

The second general term is cognitive control, which is also referred to as executive control or executive functions or executive processing in the field. Currently, it refers to the ability to control the processes that allow information processing or behavior to change flexibly according to different goals. Cognitive control processes include a broad class of mental operations. Various models have described cognitive control from different focuses, including the Top-down inhibitory model (Aron, 2007), the Working Memory model (Baddeley, 1986), the Supervisory Attentional System (Norman & Shallice, 1980), the ← 13 | 14 → Self-regulatory model (Barkley, 1997) and the Problem-solving model (Zelazo, Carter, Reznick, & Frye, 1997).

Miyake and colleagues (Friedman & Miyake, 2004; Miyake & Friedman, 2012; Miyake et al., 2000) identify three related but separable core aspects of cognitive control: inhibition, mental set shifting, and working memory updating. More recently, Green and Abutalebi (2013) propose the adaptive control hypothesis, stating that cognitive control is divided into eight processes: goal maintenance, conflict monitoring, interference suppression, salient cue detection, selective response inhibition, task disengagement, task engagement, and opportunistic planning. Although different views still exist about the specific subcomponents of cognitive control, it is widely acknowledged that cognitive control as a unitary construct can be separated into some related but independent aspects, which can be measured by different cognitive control tasks. Following this approach, this volume mainly focuses on three aspects: inhibitory control (inhibition), conflict monitoring, and mental set shifting. These aspects have been widely reported related to bilingualism in the literature. Inhibition is one’s capacity to supersede responses that are prepotent in a given situation. Conflict monitoring is one’s ability to monitor performance, internal states, and current environment. Mental set shifting is one’s cognitive flexibility to switch between different tasks or mental states.

1.3   Motivation

Although many studies have found evidence of bilingual advantage in bilinguals compared with their counterpart monolinguals (Bialystok et al., 2005; Bialystok et al., 2004; Bialystok & Viswanathan, 2009; Costa et al., 2009; Prior & Gollan, 2011; Prior & Macwhinney, 2010), quite a few studies have failed to capture positive effects of bilingualism, particularly in behavioral measures among young-adult bilinguals (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2008; Colzato et al., 2008; Hilchey & Klein, 2011; Kousaie & Phillips, 2012a; Luk et al., 2010; Paap & Greenberg, 2013). ← 14 | 15 → For example, in one such study (Paap & Greenberg, 2013), it was concluded that there is no coherence of bilingual cognitive control advantage across different cognitive control tasks and between different studies. In this study, young adult bilinguals and monolinguals were compared in three sub-studies on 15 indicators of executive processing by their performance in the tasks of anti-saccade, Simon, Flanker, and color-shape switching. The results presented no evidence of bilingual advantage and indicated that effects assumed to be indicators of a specific executive process in one task (e.g., inhibitory control in the Flanker task) frequently do not predict individual differences in that same indicator on a related task (e.g., inhibitory control in the Simon task). This study’s findings highlight a question central to the most recent research on bilingual advantage – the incoherence of bilingual advantage when examined in different contexts.

The motivation for the current research springs from the need to reinterpret the findings from previous studies that underestimate the incoherence problem, and finds expression in this study’s examination of bilingual advantage in different contexts where bilinguals have different bilingual experiences.

1.4   Current Focus

When examining bilingual advantage, most of the previous studies compare cognitive control differences between bilinguals and monolinguals (Bialystok et al., 2005; Bialystok et al., 2004; Bialystok & Viswanathan, 2009; Costa et al., 2009; Prior & Macwhinney, 2010). However, there is at least one crucial shortcoming in this methodology: The comparison between bilinguals and monolinguals does not distinguish the differences amongst bilinguals, and these differences of bilingual experience may have been a crucial factor in the inability of certain previous studies to find a coherent bilingual advantage.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
Bilingualism, bilingual advantage, cognitive control, bilingual experiences, young adult Chinese-English bilinguals
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 221 pp.

Biographical notes

Zhilong Xie (Author)

Dr. Zhilong Xie is director and Associate Professor at the Centre for Foreign Language Teaching & Education of Foreign Languages College at Jiangxi Normal University in China. His current research focuses on the interaction between cognitive control and bilingual usage. Other areas of research include foreign language teaching, second language acquisition, and intercultural communication.


Title: Bilingual Advantages
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224 pages