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Investigating a working memory advantage in bilingual Arabic-English children

Areej Balilah (Western University, Speech and Language Science) & Lisa Archibald (Western University, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders)


Bilingual children; Working memory; Verbal and visuospatial short-term

Bilingual children who are living in a multilingual environment need to switch between two languages on a regular basis in their everyday lives. During speech production, bilingual speakers activate both language systems equally in their mind. To activate the relevant language and suppress the non-target language, bilinguals use a mechanism of cognitive control. The constant use of cognitive control in bilingual children may aid their performance on tasks that rely on this particular mechanism. Indeed, bilingual speakers have been found to outperform their monolingual peers on several tasks of executive control.

Working memory is an important resource that has been linked to cognitive control. The working memory system supports the short-term storage of verbal and visuospatial material, and updates and manipulates information held in the short-term stores. The ability to hold relevant information in mind may be considered an important component of cognitive control. In related work, intensive working memory training has been found to result in improved working memory functioning. The idea that bilingual children exercise cognitive control (along with working memory updating) to a greater extent than their monolingual peers gives rise to an expectation of a cognitive control (and possibly working memory) advantage for bilingual groups.

In order to examine this hypothesis, 54 bilingual children ages 6 to 9 years whose L1 was Arabic and who had been learning English as the language of instruction (L2-English) in Canada and 376 TD Arabic-speaking children from Saudi Arabia of similar age completed measures of verbal and visuospatial short-term and working memory in their dominant language. Results revealed no significant differences between bilingual and monolingual children on composite domain-specific short-term and domain-general working memory measures. As such, the study provides no evidence for a bilingual advantage related to the working memory component of cognitive control. One possible explanation may be related to the context in which our bilingual speakers were immersed. That is, the demands for English and Arabic in the Canadian environment were often separated, for example, as the home or school language. As a result, the demands for cognitive control in activating the relevant language might have been reduced in these speakers. Alternatively, it may be that the bilingual benefit of constantly exercising cognitive control impacts processing resources other than working memory updating and not measured in our study.



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[2] Pascale Engel de Abreu. Working memory in multilingual children: Is there a bilingual effect?. Memory, 19(5): 529-537, 2011.