Handbags at 10 Paces Over Bilingualism

Over the last few years I have read a number of reports based on research in to bilingualism that highlighted benefits in aspects of executive function. To me, the evidence appeared pretty compelling and was especially interesting considering my work over the last 10-11 years has been almost entirely with children who are at least bilingual (and sometimes trilingual!)

So, I was fascinated to read this recent article about the squabble that has broken out in the field of psychology on this issue:

The Atlantic – The Bitter Fight Over the Benefits of Bilingualism

The article makes fascinating reading on a number of levels. Firstly, it’s intriguing from the perspective of the hazy evidence that can be found for executive function benefits from bilingualism and the conflicting and ambiguous findings from different studies. To me, this highlights just how very hard it still is to tie down the evidence in psychological research, even with all the developments in neurological study etc. As the article says, the fact that MRI scanning can show a change in a particular area of the brain doesn’t permit assumptions that this justifies claims of positive influence.

It also raises all sorts of issues about ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and who has the right to speak on what. This is a debate that will run and run, in scientific and many other spheres – probably because there isn’t a definitive answer that will ever please everyone.

At the end, I was left still wanting to believe that there are benefits in executive function for our multilingual students (even though it might take a while to be proved conclusively). As I’m also a firm believer in the principles related to placebos I’m also determined that I will continue to tell students and their parents of these benefits – if this increases the likelihood of it being a reality for them.


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