People who speak multiple languages seem to effortlessly shift from one language to another. A logical conclusion from such observations would be that multilingual individuals are better able to switch between tasks. But recent research suggests that is not necessarily the case: In a new study, scientists found that switching between tasks actually took longer for bilinguals than monolinguals.
“We expected bilinguals to show an advantage when compared with monolinguals,” says Eva Gjorgieva of Loyola University. “However, our results showed that bilinguals were slower to respond in the task, which suggests that switching may require more effort for them.”
Gjorgieva was a recipient of the people’s choice poster award for her poster at the CNS annual meeting this week in San Francisco (full pdf of poster available through picture above). Herself a bilingual speaker of English and Macedonian, Gjorgieva has enjoyed investigating the role of languages in her own cognitive skills.
Working with Vanessa Rainey and Valerie Flores, Gjorgieva has been using EEG to look at reaction times among monolinguals and bilinguals in switching between language-related tasks. The team was surprised to find the slower reaction times for bilinguals.
A large body of research has suggested that bilinguals have an advantage in higher-order cognitive skills – called executive functions – because of the need to suppress other language interference. “Presumably, bilinguals have to exercise executive functions frequently, which may aid in greater cognitive control,” Gjorgieva, explains.
One possible explanation for the bilinguals’ slower reaction time was that the tasks in the study were language-based. “We believe that the linguistic nature of our task makes it difficult for bilinguals to disengage from the verbal component of the task, causing the delay in reaction time,” she says. “Our research continues to delve further into the specificity and strength of this bilingual advantage, as more recent findings have challenged the existence of such advantage.”
The research team is currently assessing a nonverbal version of this experiment. “Preliminary evidence suggests we may see a neural advantage among bilinguals, when the task does not contain a language component,” Gjorgieva says.
Here’s the full list of CNS 2015 people’s choice poster winners:
Session A: Janani Iyer, “Statistical Learning of Tone Sequences in Dyslexia”
Session B: Sol Sun, “Attentional Scope Modulates Binding without Conscious Awareness”
Session C: Elise Gagnon, “Associative Novelty Binding in Young and Older Adults”
Session D: Robert Morrison, “Anterior Prefrontal Cortex and Relational Reasoning during Adolescence: An Event-Related Potential Study”
Session E: Eva Gjorgieva, “The Bait and Switch: Differences in Shifting Attention between Monolinguals and Bilinguals”
Session F: Alexanjro Galvez-Pol, “Neural dissociation for visual and sensorimotor working memory storage: evidence for a Mnemonic Homunculus”
Each winner received $100, courtesy of Elsevier.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz