Recent research by Princeton University suggests that bilingual individuals are better able to reason about what others are thinking than monolinguals.
This increased ability is thought to result from the habit of switching from one language to another depending on what language is being spoken. Bilingualism is seeing to effect, therefore, areas of daily life not related directly to communication, such as the improvement of cognitive abilities.
These conclusions were drawn from an experiment which sought to discover whether adults might suffer from what is known as “egocentric bias” (selfishness) and, to what extent, this might depend on their being bilingual or monolingual. The experiment consisted of performing two exercises: the Sally-Anne and Simon tasks.
The researchers, Paula Rubio-Fernandez and Sam Glucksberg, tested a total of 46 undergraduates at Princeton University: 23 bilinguals and 23 monolinguals. All participants were to some extent familiar with a second language. For the purpose of the study they distinguished between those participants who had been regularly using two languages most of their lives from those who had not.
The Sally-Anne task, originally designed to be used with children, was modified to be conducted with adults.
When applied to children, a correct answer determines the experiment’s success. However, as adults are already expected to provide the right answer, the response time becomes the crucial factor.
The Sally-Anne task was originally developed by Baron-Cohen (1985). Children are asked where Sally will look for the marble. In order to pass the test, the child must be able to put themselves in the shoes of Sally. As Sally is unaware that the ball has been replaced by Anne, the correct answer is that Sally must now search for the ball in the basket.
The Simon task is used, in turn, to evaluate the level of goal-directed action that a given person is capable of performing.
The task involves pressing a key on the right when the word “right” appears on the computer screen and a key on the left when the word “left” is shown. The difficulty is that the word “right” sometimes appears on the left hand side and vice-versa. The participants have to resist their initial impulse and press the correct key. It’s not as easy as it seems!
The most remarkable conclusion of this research is that bilingual individuals are less affected than monolinguals by egocentric bias – they need less time to give the correct answer when doing the Sally-Anne task.
This research suggests that it is possible that the increased ability to reason correctly about what others think is, at least partly, a result of increased goal-directed action. This conclusion arises from the fact that bilinguals performed better on the Simon task.
Such results confirm the proven benefits of being bilingual, not only in terms of communication but also in enhanced cognitive abilities; bilinguals are thought to be more capable to show empathy towards others than monolinguals.
What our experts said?
Yeah! Magazine went to Dublin City University to see Jenny Bruen, lecturer in German and researcher in the field of applied linguistics.
Bruen explained us that “research has clearly demonstrated the benefits of bilingualism on a range of fronts. For example, in addition to the obvious practical benefits of being able to communicate in more than one language, bilingual children tend to be more creative, have greater problem solving skills, and enjoy higher levels of language awareness in both of their languages as well as an ability to acquire additional languages with greater ease than their monolingual counterparts.”
She also emphasises the relation between language and culture: “They [bilinguals] tend to have enhanced intercultural skills and a more open perspective regarding other cultures”
Regardless of what scholars in the field maintain about the relation between bilingualism and intercultural sensitivity, Yeah! Magazine wanted to find out from those on the ground, so we went straight to the source; to the Insitituto Cervantes Dublin.
We spoke to Carmen San Julian, who has been teaching Spanish as a second language in Dublin for over ten years.
“Language reflects culture. Culture is formed not only by the so called high art: books, paintings, music, architecture…but also and more importantly, by other factors that sometimes are almost imperceptible such as beliefs, values, customs, manners, relationships and some unexpected behaviors of a given social group. Students will master a language only when they learn both its linguistic and cultural norms.
To take this into the language class becomes a real challenge for teachers. In my classes I face this matter by encouraging my students to reflect on their own culture, to compare it with the culture of other people and see for themselves the fact that culture is not something absolute, but a social construction of conventions. There is more than one way to see and perceive the world.
Two years ago I started to take my students to cultural conferences given in the Cervantes Institute and also to invite those lecturers and artists to my classes to talk about books, movies, dances, foods, songs…. The experience is being just wonderful! The students listen, ask, talk, laugh, interact and communicate with our guests and they use the language in a real context. But the most important aspect for me is that through these experiences, the students become independent learners, researching in their own about the authors and their work and through this research, they also learn about customs, beliefs, and ways of behavior – all those hidden cultural aspects of the target language. Experience told me that introducing culture in all its forms in the classroom undoubtedly helps to enhance the optimization of learning a second language.
I believe that learning languages and doing it through culture, not only make you more aware of how others are feeling, but also help you to open your mind towards the cultural diversity of our modern society.”
Sergio Angulo Bujanda