Skye is the limit – or, the power of mad ideas

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to you great but scarily mad, something that really excited you but you didn’t dare to share even with your closest friends? Well, that’s how I felt two years ago, when it suddenly crossed my mind that we could test attention in people attending a one-week Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. The idea did not come out of nothing: by then, we had already analysed the data from a study subsequently published in Cognition [1]. There we found that first year students of modern languages and of other humanities (English literature, history etc) performed equally well in a test of attentional switching at the beginning of their studies. However, by the end of the fourth year the language students, by then quite fluent in their chosen language, outperformed their colleagues from other faculties.

As exciting as this study was, it had a small problem: the first and fourth year students in each subject area were not the same groups of people. Of course, it seemed to us unlikely that the students at the University of Edinburgh changed substantially in the previous 4 years, and even more unlikely that this change would have been radically different in modern languages compared with other departments. But still, wouldn’t it be much more elegant to test the same people before and after learning a new language? Well, if this means waiting 4 years, I would be unable to report to you any earlier than 2020.

But maybe the effects could be seen much faster? After one year? Or one month?

Could we find an effect after just one week?

Yes, this looked distinctly unrealistic, but I thought it might be worth giving it a try. I was aware of a study by Denise Park at the University of Texas [2], showing a cognitive improvement in participants over 50 years old after three months of training in a challenging novel task (such as digital photography). This was good news for me; learning a new language is certainly a challenging novel task, and three months looked much more encouraging than four years. From a logistical point of view, I already knew about intensive Gaelic language courses taking place at the Gaelic College Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye.

Designing the study

The next step was to find some post-graduate students prepared to share with me in this madness. I was honest selling the deal: “It might well be that nothing worth reporting comes out of it, but in the very worst case you will spend a few weeks in one of the most beautiful corners of Scotland and learn something about a fascinating language and culture”. I was lucky: two students (Margot Overman and Madeleine Long) immediately volunteered.

The choice of tasks was relatively straightforward: we used the so-called elevator tests from the Test of Everyday Attention (TEA). In these tests, participants are asked to imagine they are in an elevator that is not working properly; to work out which floor they are on, participants have to selectively count or ignore high- or low-pitched tones. This task might sound a bit strange, but it is a clinically validated method of measuring people’s ability to ignore irrelevant information and switch attention between different types of input; it is used daily by clinicians all over the world and we had previously used it in the study on language versus humanities students outlined above.

We arranged with Sabhal Mor Ostaig for the students to test people’s attention just before the beginning of the one-week intensive Gaelic course and immediately thereafter. A few weeks later the students came back with a result which surprised us all: every single participant from the cohort improved between the first and the second assessment. The mad idea had worked! Of course we were aware that such a result could only be considered meaningful if we could demonstrate that it was not simply an effect of people learning how to do the task better on the second attempt, the so-called “practice effect”.

That is why we also tested two control groups. The “passive controls” took the tests, then followed their usual routine activities and were retested one week later. The “Active controls” were tested before an after a one week course of comparable intensity, but which did not involve learning a second language (e.g. documentary film, art, preparation for teaching English to foreign students etc). All three groups (those taking the language course, those taking the non-language course, and those taking no course) performed equally well at the first round of testing (the “baseline”). After one week, the passive controls performed exactly as they did at the beginning. The active controls improved a bit, but less so than language learners: the difference between them and the passive controls was not significant. Importantly, the improvement in language learners did not depend on their age: we found a comparable increase in performance from 18 to 78 years of age.

How long does the effect last?

But then, you may ask, will such an ephemeral effect disappear as quickly as it appeared? Madeleine managed to trace more then half of our participants and retested them 9 months after the course. She also asked them how much Gaelic practise they had done since the course ended. All those who practiced on average 5 hours of more per week (one hour per day, keeping the weekends free) performed better than they had done at baseline. And what about those who didn’t practice so much? Inconsistent results: some deteriorated, some improved, some stayed the same.

This might all sound a bit outlandish; but is this result really so surprising? As already mentioned, an improvement in cognitive performance after learning a new and challenging task has been demonstrated before in the work of Denise Park and colleagues, albeit after a longer training period. What is interesting, however, is the relation of our findings to the growing literature on cognitive effects of bilingualism. But what does a one-week intensive language course have to do with bilingualism? Isn’t bilingualism about the perfect (or near perfect) mastery of two or more languages, usually from an early age? Some of the people we tested were over 50 years old!

Indeed, until recently, the vast majority of research on bilingualism and cognition has focused on this “classical” definition of bilingualism: early acquisition and perfect command of two (or more) languages. But more recent research suggests that there is a whole spectrum, from the classical (but rare) perfect bilingualism, through different stages of imperfect mastery, down to a short but intense engagement with a new language. In this context, challenge and effort (as Robert Bjork and Judy Kroll recently put it [3]: “desired difficulties”) play a positive rather than negative role. Just as with physical exercise, the activity is more important than the ability. Being able to swim perfectly will not keep us fit and healthy if we never practice it. Swimming regularly, albeit imperfectly, might.

Questions, questions, questions

There are of course many more questions here that need to be addressed. Could at least some of the effect be due to the environment of a residential school on the Isle of Skye? Were the Gaelic learners a particular selection of people, not necessarily better in attentional functions (after all, the baseline performance was the same for all groups) but somehow more able to learn? What is the best “dose” of language learning needed to get beneficial effects? Is more input always better or could the effects reverse at some point? All these questions can and hopefully will be answered in future studies. Meanwhile, it might be a good idea to enroll on an intensive language course.

Further reading

An open access copy of the article described in this post is available on the PLOS ONE website: Novelty, Challenge and Practice: The Impact of Intensive Language Learning on Attentional Functions

[1] Vega-Mendoza et al (2015). The impact of late, non-balanced bilingualism on cognitive performance. Cognition, 137, 40-46.

[2] Park et al (2014). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults. Psychological science, 25(1), 103-112.

[3] BjorK & Kroll (2015). Desirable difficulties in vocabulary learning. The American Journal of Psychology, 128(2), 241-252.