Bilingual pupils cope better in noisy environments

Published: 13 October 2014 at 13:48

Anglia Ruskin study shows children who speak two languages have advantage

A new study, published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, has found that bilingual primary school children learn more effectively than monolinguals within noisy environments such as classrooms.

Anglia Ruskin University’s Dr Roberto Filippi led the research, which involved children aged between seven and 10 at a Cambridge primary school.

The study discovered that bilingual children were better able to maintain focus on a main task, which in this case was the identification of the subject within a short sentence while in the presence of noise.

Pupils who only speak one language did not reach the same level of efficiency, showing that noise negatively affects their ability to sustain attention, especially when comprehending more difficult sentences. 

When a sentence has a passive rather than active construction, for example “the frog is bitten by the cow” rather than “the frog is biting the cow”, it requires greater cognitive processing. 

Here, bilinguals show that when the “game gets harder”, their minds can process the information in a more efficient way.  The researchers found that the level of accuracy in comprehension was 63% amongst bilinguals compared to 51% amongst monolinguals.

The study also shows that the ability to overcome verbal interference improves with age in bilingual speakers but not in monolinguals, with the bilingual children overtaking their monolingual classmates by the age of 9.

Dr Filippi, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin, said:

“Previous research has shown that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognitive abilities, but there were no studies investigating whether these advantages extended to learning in noisy environments.
“Primary schools are the key stages for the development of formal learning in the first years of life.  However, they are also remarkably noisy.  Therefore the ability to filter out auditory interference is particularly important within the context of an educational environment.”

Dr Filippi co-authored the study with academics from Northwestern University in Chicago and Birkbeck, University of London.  Dr Filippi added:

“The observation that the ability to control interference improves with age, but only within the bilingual group, is a remarkable finding.
“This shows the acquisition of two languages in early childhood provides a beneficial effect on cognitive development.  The study provides further evidence of the importance of learning a second language early in the UK educational system.”

The researchers have applied to the Leverhulme Trust for funding to conduct large-scale research in this area, which will survey people of all ages in an attempt to track how bilingualism affects the brain throughout a person’s development.