Despite social and employment benefits, bilingualism does not make you ‘smarter’

Emily Nichols

Being bilingual does not improve general mental ability, according to a new study conducted by a team of researchers at Western University’s renowned Brain and Mind Institute.

More than 11,000 participants from around the world completed 12 online cognitive tests that taxed reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills and attention. Each person also reported whether they spoke one language or more, and which languages they spoke. The results showed no evidence that the benefits of being bilingual transfer to other mental skills.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

“From our 11,000 participants, we generated two very carefully matched groups – one monolingual, and one bilingual. Surprisingly, there were no consistent differences between them on any of our cognitive tests,” explains Emily Nichols, a postdoctoral fellow in the Developing Brain Lab in Western’s Faculty of Education and lead author of the study.

Nichols says many previous research studies have suggested that the ‘bilingual advantage’ is real, although they tend to use small samples and focus on very specific tests that might not generalize.

“We explored many different ways of comparing the two groups across a broad range of cognitive tasks. Our prediction was that if bilingualism provided a general cognitive advantage, then we would be able to see it and we didn’t,” says Nichols.

Adrian Owen

Adrian Owen

The cognitive tests developed by celebrated neuroscientist Adrian Owen and his team have been used in hundreds of scientific studies to identify deficits and differences between various clinical and healthy populations.

“One question in this field is whether the tests used are sensitive enough to detect small differences between different groups,” explains Owen, a professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and senior author on the study. “In this case, our previous studies reassured us that we would be able to detect a difference between monolinguals and bilinguals and there just wasn’t one.”

The researchers say this study should not be considered ‘good’ news for monolinguals and ‘bad’ news for bilinguals, who make up almost 20 per cent of the Canadian population.

“Despite there being no cognitive advantage, the broader social, employment, and lifestyle benefits that are available to speakers of a second language are clearly numerous,” says Nichols.

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