What quieres you decir? Bilingual children are better at understanding communicative intentions.

There can often be a gap between what someone says (their utterance), and what they mean (their communicative intention). For example, there is a subtle but very important difference between the remark “it is cold here”, uttered by a Spanish tourist on arriving in Edinburgh for the Festival, and the implicit request “it is cold here”, uttered by your office mate on entering the office, noticing the window is open, and politely suggesting you should close it.

Understanding intentions is critical to communicative success, and adult speakers can (usually!) make the required inference that they ought to shut the window in order to keep the peace. However, this ability takes some time to acquire – very small children are not able to draw this kind of inference.

We know this from previous research, where children are asked to sit in a room with a researcher. The children were shown two objects with made-up names. One of the objects was visible to the child, but not to the researcher. The other object was visible to both the child and to the researcher. Then, the researcher either said “There is the spoodle!” or “Where is the spoodle?” while looking at the object that was visible to her. After this, the researcher asked the child to hand her the spoodle.

The four year old children could correctly infer that when the researcher asked “Where is the spoodle?” she was talking about the object that she could not see, and that when she said “There is the spoodle!” she was talking about the object that she could see. We know this because the four year olds tended to give the researchers the correct “spoodle” when asked. On the other hand, two and a half year old children usually handed over the object that the researcher could see, regardless of what the researcher said.

In this study, the researchers used the same technique to compare 3 year old monolingual and bilingual children. The results showed that the monolingual 3 year olds tended to hand over the spoodle that the researcher could see, regardless of whether the researcher had said “where is the spoodle?” or “there is the spoodle!”. On the other hand, the bilingual 3-year-olds were more likely to correctly hand over the spoodle that the researcher could not see when she had asked “where is the spoodle?”, and to hand over the spoodle that the researcher could see, when she had said “there is the spoodle!”. This suggests that the bilingual children could understand the different intentions in the two situations better than the monolingual children.

The bilingual children in this study did not differ from the monolingual group in socio-economic status, number of words known, memory, or the ability to suppress irrelevant responses. The authors suggested that bilingual children might develop the ability to understand intentions earlier, and might be better at integrating multiple sources of information (e.g., where the speaker is looking, what she can see, what she is saying) thanks to the fact that they face more challenges while learning two languages. For example, when they hear a new word, they need to figure out not only what it refers to, but also what language it belongs to.

For more information, see Yow, W. Q. & Markman, E. M. (2014). A bilingual advantage in how children integrate multiple cues to understand a speaker’s referential intent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi:10.1017/S1366728914000133.