CHILDREN who are bilingual outperform those who only speak one language when it comes to problem-solving skills and creative thinking, according to new research.
It is believed that benefits are linked to the mental alertness needed to switch between languages, which could feed into aptitudes and skills useful in other areas of thinking.
A study of primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian – half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian respectively – found that the bilingual children were significantly more successful in set tasks.
The Gaelic-speaking children were, in turn, more successful than the Sardinian speakers, according to the Strathclyde University research.
Researchers believe the formal teaching of Gaelic and its extensive literature may have given the Gaelic speakers an advantage. Sardinian is not widely taught in schools on the Italian island and has a largely oral tradition. There is no standardised form of the language.
Dr Fraser Lauchlan, an honorary lecturer at Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences and Health, led the research, which was conducted with colleagues at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, where he is a visiting professor.
Dr Lauchlan said the research had shown that the benefits of bilingualism spread into creative and mathematical skills, as well as enriching language skills and improving concentration.
“Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them,” he said.
“Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.
“We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention – the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not – which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”
The study took 121 children in Scotland and Sardinia, 62 of them bilingual, and asked them to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, repeat orally a series of numbers, clearly define words and carry out mental arithmetic problems. Tasks were all set in English or Italian. All the children taking part were aged around nine.
Child development expert Sue Palmer said of the findings: “The very luckiest are those who learn a second language from birth.
“We’re equipped to learn languages – we have a language gene, so to speak, it’s in our DNA to learn languages – so if you start as a child, you learn them easily.
“The older you get, the harder it is.”