[lg policy] Bilinguals' superior social skills

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jul 27 11:18:56 EDT 2016

The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals
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Credit Gérard DuBois

BEING bilingual has some obvious advantages. Learning more than one
language enables new conversations and new experiences. But in recent
years, psychology researchers have demonstrated some less obvious
advantages of bilingualism, too. For instance, bilingual children may enjoy
certain cognitive benefits, such as improved executive function — which is
critical for problem solving and other mentally demanding activities.

Now, two new studies demonstrate that multilingual exposure improves not
only children’s cognitive skills but also their social abilities.

One study from my developmental psychology lab — conducted in collaboration
with the psychologists Boaz Keysar, Zoe Liberman and Samantha Fan at the
University of Chicago, and published last year in the journal Psychological
Science — shows that multilingual children can be better at communication
than monolingual children.

We took a group of children in the United States, ages 4 to 6, from
different linguistic backgrounds, and presented them with a situation in
which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand her
meaning. For example, an adult said to the child: “Ooh, a small car! Can
you move the small car for me?” Children could see three cars — small,
medium and large — but were in position to observe that the adult could not
see the smallest car. Since the adult could see only the medium and large
cars, when she said “small” car, she must be referring to the child’s

We found that bilingual children were better than monolingual children at
this task. If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Interpreting
someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but
also to the surrounding context. What does a speaker know or not know? What
did she intend to convey? Children in multilingual environments have social
experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives
of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who
understands which content, and the times and places in which different
languages are spoken.

Interestingly, we also found that children who were effectively monolingual
yet regularly exposed to another language — for example, those who had
grandparents who spoke another language — were just as talented as the
bilingual children at this task. It seems that being raised in an
environment in which multiple languages are spoken, rather than being
bilingual per se, is the driving factor.

You might wonder whether our findings could be explained as just another
instance of the greater cognitive skills that bilingual children have been
observed to have. We wondered that, too. So we gave all the children a
standard cognitive test of executive function. We found that bilingual
children performed better than monolingual children, but that the kids who
were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language did
not. These “exposure” children performed like monolinguals on the cognitive
task, but like bilinguals on the communication task. Something other than
cognitive skills — something more “social” — must explain their facility in
adopting another’s perspective.
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In a follow-up study, forthcoming in the journal Developmental Science, my
colleagues and I examined the effects of multilingual exposure on even
younger children: 14- to 16-month-old babies, who are hardly speaking at
all. In this study, led by Zoe Liberman and in collaboration with Professor
Keysar and the psychologist Amanda Woodward, babies were shown two versions
of the same object, such as a banana, one of which was visible to both the
infant and an adult, the other visible to the baby yet hidden from the
adult’s view. When the adult asked the baby for “the banana,” the baby
might hand her either object — both were bananas, after all — yet if the
baby understood the social context, he would reach more often for the
banana that the adult could see.

We found that babies in monolingual environments reached equally often for
the two bananas. Babies in multilingual environments, including those who
were exposed to a second language only minimally, already understood the
importance of adopting another’s perspective for communication: They
reached more often for the banana that the adult could see.

Multilingual exposure, it seems, facilitates the basic skills of
interpersonal understanding. Of course, becoming fully bilingual or
multilingual is not always easy or possible for everyone. But the social
advantage we have identified appears to emerge from merely being raised in
an environment in which multiple languages are experienced, not from being
bilingual per se. This is potentially good news for parents who are not
bilingual themselves, yet who want their children to enjoy some of the
benefits of multilingualism.

Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human
development at Cornell University.


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