Workshop on Bilingualism and Executive Function: An Interdisciplinary Approach

18-19 May 2015, New York

Bilingualism Matters researchers Dr. Thomas Bak and Prof. Antonella Sorace joined language scientists and cognitive psychologists from around the world to discuss the relationship between speaking more than one language, and other mental skills such as the ability to focus attention or switch between tasks. These skills are often referred to as “executive function”.

There are many different ways of testing this sort of ability. For example, one common task for children involves asking them to sort cards first by the picture they show, and then by the colour of that picture – ignoring the picture itself. A common task for adults involves asking them to imagine they are in a lift, or elevator. When they hear a high pitch tone they count down one floor, and when they hear a low pitch tone they count up one floor – this forces people to ignore the usual association between high pitch tones and moving or counting upwards.

Many studies into bilingualism have found that those who speak multiple languages have an advantage on this sort of task, but other studies have found no differences. No study has found that bilinguals are at a disadvantage. One important question in current research therefore, is to try and understand why so many studies find that bilinguals are better at “executive function” tasks, while some other studies don’t.

One obvious possibility is that the different types of tasks researchers use are actually measuring subtly different things – only some of which are influenced by whether or not you speak multiple languages. Another possibility is that in some studies there may be other differences between the monolingual and the bilingual groups which might be causing (or hiding) the effects. The truth is that at this stage, we simply don’t know – although this is a question that researchers on the AThEME project are explicitly aiming to solve over the next four years.

Last week’s conference in New York was an important step in bringing together the world’s leading researchers to begin picking apart the relationship between bilingualism and “executive function”. Videos of the conference are available to watch thanks to the Cuny Academic Commons team. See below for videos from Bilingualism Matters researchers, or visit the conference website for videos from all the other speakers or download their slides: Bilingualism and Executive Function conference website.

  • Prof Antonella Sorace “Bilingualism and the Syntax-Pragmatics Interface”

  • Dr. Thomas Bak “Bilingualism and Ageing”