In the midst of a debate over the potential cognitive benefits of learning a second language, new research suggests it may have social value as well. Actually, even being around people who speak different languages may help children learn to take others’ perspectives, making communication more effective for everyone.
“[E]xposure to multiple languages is, and has been for millennia, an integral part of human development,” writes a team led by University of Chicago psychology graduate student Samantha Fan in Psychological Science. “Children in multilingual environments routinely have the opportunity to track who speaks which language, who understands which content, and who can converse with whom,” suggesting that language exposure may help them better comprehend the social aspects of conversation. In particular, the team argues, it might help kids learn an important skill, albeit one that’s difficult to master: taking the perspectives of the people they’re listening to.
Much of the academic debate over the consequences of multilingualism centers on executive control, the mental capacity to manage cognitive processes—for example, the ability to read a book while ignoring others’ conversations in a noisy coffee shop, or the skill to manage many different concerns while making a political decision.
The results were clear: Both bilinguals and, remarkably, monolinguals with foreign-language experience scored about 75 percent on ambiguous instructions, compared to plain old monolinguals’ 50 percent. Apparently, kids who’d at least heard more than one language understood more often than not which car the director could see and moved that one, while other children seemed to ignore than information and chose which car to move at random.