Preschoolers who speak two languages show less impulsiveness than their monolingual peers, a recent study has suggested.
The University of Oregon research found that speaking two languages may be better than one, especially for developing inhibitory control - the ability to stop a hasty reflexive response and instead select a more adaptive response.
The study took a longitudinal approach to examine the bilingual advantage hypothesis, which suggests that the demands associated with managing two languages confer cognitive advantages that extend beyond the language domain.
Researchers looked at a national sample of 1,146 Head Start children who were assessed for their inhibitory control at age 4, and then followed over an 18-month period. The children were divided into three groups based on their language proficiency: Those who spoke only English; those who spoke both Spanish and English; and those who spoke only Spanish at the start of the study but were fluent in both English and Spanish at the follow up assessment.
Lead author Jimena Santillan revealed that at the beginning of the study, the group that entered as already bilingual scored higher on a test of inhibitory control compared to the other two groups.
Follow-up assessments came at six and 18 months. Inhibitory control was assessed using a common pencil-tapping task, in which the participant is instructed to tap a pencil on a desk twice when the experimenter taps once, and vice-versa, requiring the student to inhibit the impulse to imitate what the experimenter does and but do the opposite instead.
Over the follow-up period, both the bilingual group and the monolingual-to-bilingual transition group showed more rapid inhibitory control development than the group of English-only speakers.
Co-author Atika Khurana noted that the development of inhibitory control occurs rapidly during the preschool years. Children with strong inhibitory control are better able to pay attention, follow instructions and take turns.
Khurana continued that this study showed one way in which environmental influences can impact the development of inhibitory control during younger years.
The study appears in the journal Developmental Science.