Research contesting 'bilingual advantage in cognitive control' honored

Professor of Psychology Ken Paap has received the 2014 Journal of Cognitive Psychology best paper award for his research challenging widely held beliefs about how bilingualism enhances cognitive control, also called executive functioning, the journal announced last month.

Professor of Psychology Ken Paap

Professor of Psychology Ken Paap

"Are bilingual advantages dependent upon specific tasks or specific bilingual experiences," written by Paap and co-authors Hunter Johnson and Oliver Sawi, was praised by the journal for "challeng[ing] the established wisdom about bilingual advantages whilst doing so in a constructive manner." The best paper award is given annually to the article that the journal's associate editors judge to be the most outstanding in terms of scientific quality and broad interest.

Paap's research challenges the commonly held belief that being bilingual can improve an individual's executive functions.  Also referred to as cognitive control, executive functions are important in controlling thoughts and behaviors when multitasking or pursuing goals in distracting environments. This so-called "bilingual advantage" stems from the premise that skills needed to speak two (or more) languages, such as the ability to alternate between them, can help individuals suppress distractions, resolve conflict and efficiently switch tasks in general.

When Paap and his fellow researchers tried to replicate these findings over larger, more statistically powerful sample sizes, however, they didn't hold up.

"We looked to see at what sample sizes you are most likely to find the bilingual advantage. The answer is: small," he said, adding that the reason studies with smaller sample sizes show the advantage may be because of differences between the individuals within the groups studied, such as socioeconomic status, immigrant status or culture. "All things considered, the advantages of bilingualism across a host of personal, economic, social and cultural dimensions vastly outweigh any disadvantages. However, our results show no advantages in executive functioning even for bilinguals who acquire both languages early and are highly proficient in both."

Paap has expanded on this research in an article that has been published online in the journal Cortex and will appear in print later this year.

-- Jonathan Morales