Early bilingualism enhances mechanisms of false-belief reasoning

Children below the age of 4 have difficulty understanding that other people can hold beliefs that do not correspond to their own beliefs, or to reality (these are called “false beliefs”). Different reasons for this difficulty have been proposed. Some suggest it could be lack of experience with real-life situations in which beliefs mismatch. Others think children understand the concept of false beliefs, but they find it difficult to suppress their own belief, so that they give the wrong answer when questioned about the beliefs of others. This study compared monolingual and bilingual 3-year-olds who came from similar socio-economic backgrounds, had similar intelligence, and similar linguistic abilities. Despite these similarities, bilinguals performed better than monolinguals: they were more likely to respond correctly when asked to predict what a cartoon character would do given its (false) belief; they were less likely to respond on the basis of their own (true) belief. Bilinguals’ advantage was similar when the character’s false belief was caused by ignorance (for example, not being present when an object was moved from one location to another) or lack of understanding (for example, not speaking the bilingual child’s other language). The author concluded that bilinguals’ advantage was probably a result of greater practice with inhibition of the wrong response, due to the fact that they constantly have to inhibit one of their languages when speaking in the other.

This is a summary of the following published article:

Early bilingualism enhances mechanisms of false-belief reasoning by A M Kovacs (2009). Developmental Science 12(1), 48-54