Kathrin Oberhofer (University of Innsbruck)
metalinguistic ability; executive function; partial bilingualism; emerging bilingualism; child L2 learning; early immersion
An ever-growing body of research has shown that individuals who know more than one language use, process, store, and understand language(s) differently from those who know only one. For instance, compared to their monolingual peers, bi/multilingual children often demonstrate a more abstract and advanced understanding of what language is and how it works in areas such as word-meaning connection or morphology. They also show more domain-general cognitive benefits, performing better on certain tasks of executive function (EF) and cognitive control, even when these are non-linguistic in nature (for an overview, see e.g. Bialystok, 2009; Bialystok, Craik, Green, & Gollan, 2009). However, most such studies have focused on children who are fairly proficient rather than partial/emerging bilinguals, and only very few studies have looked at the development of these abilities over time.
The present study included some 100 children from German-speaking families, about half of whom were in regular German-language kindergartens (ML or monolinguals), and half of whom attended kindergartens with some form of intensive English immersion or bilingual program (YLL or young language learners) and can therefore be considered emerging bilinguals. The majority entered the project around age 4-5 and were tested three times over a period of two years, but some were tested only once at age 6, in the children’s final months of pre-school.
Tests of EF and metalinguistic abilities found no significant performance differences between the once-tested ML and YLL, but in the longitudinal cohort, the YLL were showing some performance advantages over the ML by their third and final test time. A comparison of test results between the ‘first-timers’/‘novices’ and the ‘third-timers’/‘repeaters’ at age 6 yielded interesting results. That children doing a task for the third time should perform better than a child of the same age doing it for the first time will come as no surprise. However, while there were no significant differences between ‘novices’ and ‘repeaters’ among the monolinguals at age 6, among the young language learners, the ‘repeaters’ scored significantly higher than the YLL ‘novices’ on a test of nonverbal executive function, a metalinguistic task that depended highly on control of attention and inhibition, and a test of morphological awareness. In other words the young language learners may have benefitted more from repeated testing (practice effect) than the monolinguals.
 Bialystok, E. Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 12(1):3-11, 2009.
 Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. Bilingual Minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3):89-129, 2009.