Cognitive Effects of Early Bilingualism Essay

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The American educational system has fallen behind other leading nations in the world in many respects, one of which is in bilingual instruction. This has traditionally been overlooked in the United States until the high school level. Children in todays society should be made more prepared for the growing globalism and technological advances throughout the world instead of losing educational opportunities due to economic downfall and lack of resources. This includes a second language acquisition introduced earlier in the program. On top of political reasons, the positive effects to the cognitive development of the brain when introduced to a second language are many. The age of acquisition is crucial due to the plasticity of the brain which, according to the critical period hypothesis, begins to plateau after five years of age. The current policy in early education limits greatly the amount of extracurricular lessons provided in accordance with government policies such as No Child Left Behind, which restricts school funding based on standardized testing only in certain subject areas.

School programs, realistically beginning in elementary education, should include foreign language study due to the strong evidence that bilingualism in children can develop higher cognitive abilities which can be enhanced with proficiency and positively influence skills in other areas. Old arguments suggest that, children who are instructed bilingually from an early age will suffer cognitive or intellectual retardation in comparison with their monolingually instructed counterparts (Diaz 24). Much of the research from the past supporting this argument focused on older bilinguals, mostly adults who may have shown competent abilities in a second language but who had much later ages of acquisition and who usually acquired the second language outside of the home. Many early studies in this field worked with children of immigrants who showed lower abilities in cognitive tasks most likely because of the lack of proficiency in the second language (L2) and lack of proper schooling in relation to this deficiency (Kov¡cs 307). In correlation with poorly chosen test subjects, the studies were typically done with orthographic representations of words that would have been more difficult for younger test subjects to work with.

For example, a study done by Ton Dijkstra, Professor of Psycholinguistics and Multilingualism at the Donders Institute, which focused only on adult English/Dutch bilingualsthe youngest being fifteen years old, all of whom studied their L2 in a middle or high school level. This study included only written examples of words and had the subjects determine if the word was English or Dutch. The results were able to somewhat prove Dijkstras theory of Bilingual interactive activation (BIA) which underlines the effects orthography has on L1 and L2 word retrieval that is assuming, of course, that the same orthography is used in the input (Dijkstra 217). If this study were done on younger children, it is sure they would not have performed as well since children are typically less familiar with the written language than with the spoken. Older language learners would make more use of the written approach to learning, such as a textbook, while younger learners typically learn more from a speech-based approach, like conversationally in the home.

The textbook approach is a symbolic processing which differs from the more embedded cognitive retrieval of the speech-based learning approach utilized by younger children to understand the two languages. There have been many studies over the past few years that have proven the opposite of these older arguments. Many of the studies have tested the cognitive abilities of young children, usually aged six and under in accordance with the critical period hypothesis, with both monolingual and bilingual proficiency. These experiments are concerned with cognitive tasks including false-belief tasks and grammar testing to determine the ability to hold abstract thought in the L2 as well as phonemic testing in order to find if there is an ability to distinguish between the phonemes of the different languages. The majority of these studies have tested subjects using visual representations and vocal experiments with proctors who have experience working with children and are trained in both languages being tested. The more useful subjects are usually taught implicitly, or passively in the home.

Although some make use of explicitly taught subjects, meaning they learned actively in a class setting. It has been proven that an infant of four months has the incredible linguistic discrimination abilities to distinguish languages with different prosody and phonemes (Kov¡cs 303). An infant is then better equipped to attain more native-like proficiency later in life when exposed this early to the sounds and rhythm of the L2. Doctor in Communication Sciences, Karsten Steinhauer explains, that late L2 learners stabilize at some point short of native-like attainment [which] most recently has been discussed in terms of phonological/prosodic interference from L1 (Steinhauer 15). When a young child is introduced to two separate languages, the mechanisms of attention, selection, and inhibition become more fine-tuned due to the experience of attending to one language and ignoring the other (Kov¡cs 303, 308). The training in encoding and the association of two corresponding words with a common concept underlines the superior representational abilities a bilingual retains especially when the L2 is entrenched in the brain the way early acquisition allows.

Linguist gnes Melinda Kov¡cs presents research proving that monolinguals typically attain these abilities at the age of four years while young bilinguals gain these skills much earlier (Kov¡cs 316). The brains plasticity allows the young child to hold and use the two languages without interference and with continued usage the child will be more likely to attain full native-like proficiency in both languages. Kov¡cs also explains that since the brain remains active during demanding tasks, the brain may take on the extra load of two languages as a constructive challenge. The young, malleable brain may possibly greatly adapt to [the challenge], for example, by changing its morphology (Kov¡cs 308). A type of adaptation has been proven in studies done by neuroscientist Andrea Mechelli, which were concerned with the grey matter surrounding the left inferior parietal cortex, the general area associated with language use containing the Brocas area. These studies confirmed that the grey matter in this area is denser in early-acquired bilinguals.

The density decreases in correlation with proficiency in the L2 with monolinguals having the least dense matter (Mechelli 757). This may be the case because a later acquired L2 is held at a more surface level of the brain and requires the use of the declarative memory instead of the procedural memory. Many tests have been done to determine the amount of brain activity associated with language in the left inferior parietal cortex through the use of event-related brain potential, or ERPs. Dr. Steinhauer describes ERPs as reflecting the real-time electrophysiological brain dynamics of cognitive processes with an excellent time resolution in the range of milliseconds, and that ERPs have been hypothesized to be linked to rule-based automatic parsing (Steinhauer 16). Measurements of ERPs are taken while subjects perform syntactically poignant tasks. Since it is thought that syntactic processes are generally automatic or a part of implicit grammar processing (Steinhauer 17), the ERP components would be more difficult to elicit in later acquired bilinguals. Steinhauer et al. performed several studies in this area, working with many real and one artificial language labeled BROCANTO 2.

In each case, the subjects were given grammaticality judgment tasks in the given language, such as subject-verb agreement violations and lexical anomalies. For each group, the early acquired or implicitly taught subjects educed the same type of ERP responses as native speakers. Late-acquired or explicitly instructed subjects showed more shallow responses, if any at all in this area. These findings show that syntactic processes appear to be sensitive to delays in L2 acquisition (Steinhauer 19). One of the most prominent issues in L2 proficiency is attaining the phonemic boundary between the two languages. Monolinguals are usually unable to distinguish the sounds of a language other than their own. The more proficient a bilingual is in their L2, the more able they are to perceive the two types of phonemes and to determine which is correct in a given phonological circumstance. The phonemic boundary is the least likely area to be fossilized in a late-acquired bilingual.

There have been several studies done which have proven this, including a 2008 study done by Adrian Garcia-Sierra, professor of Communications at the University of Texas. In this study, the voice onset time, or VOT, of thirty college students was tested. Half of the students were English monolinguals while the other half were English/Spanish bilinguals who described themselves as fluent speakers of both languages and who learned their L2 at home. This study was done in Austin, Texas where some Spanish is integrated into the daily culture. The results showed that the more fluent bilinguals were more apt to a perceptual shift¦associated with high level of confidence in English and Spanish¦[and] that highly confident L2 bilinguals are more likely to possess a double phonemic boundary (Garcia-Sierra 378). This shows that more proficient bilinguals will have a stronger ability to determine different phonemes, which also underlines the effects bilingualism has on advanced discrimination and attention skills. Another recent study performed on early bilinguals was done by a group of psychologists headed by Michael Siegal.

The experiments tested the pragmatic skills of 41 children in northeastern Italy. All were between the ages of three and six years old, with 19 Italian monolinguals and 22 Italian/Slovenian bilinguals who attended the same preschool taught only in Italian. The children were tested on the Gricean maxims of conversational understanding. These are four basic rules which provide a foundation for pragmatic competence including quality, quantity, relevance, and politeness. The groups of children were shown cartoons with characters having conversations that contained one response created in order to break one of the maxims. The children were then asked which of the characters said something strange or rude and to provide a more appropriate response when the statement was positively identified. The main thesis in this study was that bilingualism requires the capacity for flexibility in the representation of language and objects [which] suggests that early bilingualism should be accompanied by advanced meta-pragmatic skills (Siegal 115).

This theory was upheld by the results of these tests in which the bilingual children outperformed the monolinguals by much more than a chance margin, especially in the maxims of politeness and quality even though many bilinguals had a delayed vocabulary in their L2. The psychologists behind this study suggest that bilingualism can be accompanied by an enhanced ability to appreciate effective communicative responses (Siegal 115). The results of this research seem to highlight the idea that the acquisition of a second language allows a child to remove themselves from the comfortable context of their native language and to realize that it is more necessary to provide useful information and use polite tones for more a successful exchange in both languages. Recently, studies have been performed concerning the effects and importance of early-acquired bilingualism in patients with neuropsychiatric disorders such as Parkinsons and Alzheimers diseases.

Research in this area shows that it is less likely for a bilingual individual to be affected by these types of diseases. The majority of the hypotheses behind this statistic pertain to the activity in the brain that is needed to think and speak bilingually. This constant activity exercises the brain in a way that is counterintuitive to the deterioration involved with these disorders (Paradis 216). The research behind Parkinsons disease explains that the procedural memory is affected greatly sometimes causing a loss of the L1. This is partnered with a tendency to produce a smaller portion of grammatical sentences¦and exhibit deficits in comprehension of complex syntactic forms (Paradis 217). This is likely linked to the deterioration of the left inferior parietal cortex, the same area in the brain discussed earlier, which is associated with syntactic processes and holding the L1. On the other hand, bilingual patients with Alzheimers show a loss in their L2 as well as in semantic abilities and a gradual loss of pragmatic, phonological, and syntactic structures. More common in this type of dementia is a puzzlingly inappropriate mixture of the two languages (Paradis 222).

This is due to the break down of the declarative memory caused by the dementia. The declarative memory is involved with metacognition, which is why it affects such things as the less familiar language, pragmatic skills, and the selective attention abilities of bilinguals. The major finding in these studies is that the differences observed in psychotic conditions as well as in dementias are caused by the increased reliance on declarative-memory-based (and hence consciously controlled) explicit metalinguistic knowledge (Paradis 222). The advances made in early bilingual research have been great over the past few decades. Through these studies and so many more, it has been made clear that bilinguals with early ages of acquisition not only achieve more native-like proficiency but also tend to have more advanced cognitive abilities than their monolingual peers.

These include but are not exclusive to increased analytical, representational, selective, and control abilities. Bilingualism also implies more developed metalingustic awareness and mental flexibility. Early bilinguals have also shown greater abilities in pragmatics and phonemic discrimination. In opposition to old arguments, Kov¡cs writes, The bilingual condition could be stimulating for the highly plastic developing mind of the child, and induces specific changes in the brain and cognitive systems (Kov¡cs 317).

The higher development has been seen in ERP testing and in the density of grey matter involved in the linguistically apt area of the brain. Educators and policy makers should consider this information when planning early education programs. Those enriched with the benefits of a bilingual education are not only better off cognitively, but in the modern world, would be more prepared for the global society and workplace.

Works Cited

Diaz, R Thought and Two Languages: The Impact of Bilingualism on Cognitive
Development. Review of Research in Education 10 (1983): 23-54

Dijkstra, Ton. Task and Context Effects in Bilingual Lexical Processing. Cognitive Aspects of Bilingualism (2007): 213-235.

Garcia-Sierra, Adrian, Randy L. Diehl, and Craig Champlin. Testing the double phonemic boundary in bilinguals. Speech Communication 51 (2009): 369-378.

Kovacs, Agnes Melinda. Beyond Language: Childhood Bilingualism Enhances High- level Cognitive Functions. Cognitive Aspects of Bilingualism (2007): 301-323.

Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., ODoherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., and Price, C.J. 2004. Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature. 431: 754.

Siegal, Michael, Laura Iozzi, and Luca Surian. Bilingualism and conversational understanding in young children. Cognition 110 (2009): 115-122.

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