Being bilingual boosts social development, researchers say
The Sector > Research > Being bilingual is a catalyst for social development, Singaporean researchers find

Being bilingual is a catalyst for social development, Singaporean researchers find

by Freya Lucas

July 28, 2023

Children who are bilingual have a greater capacity to communicate flexibly, and are therefore more advanced in their social-cognitive development, researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have found


While past research has shown that children who grow up bilingual have heightened sensitivity to communicative cues and are therefore often more adept at understanding a speaker’s context and intent, an area that had yet to be explored was the role of bilingualism in a child’s ability to assess communicative cues along with the speaker’s context and intent.


Associate Professor Yow Wei Quin from SUTD addressed this gap by investigating how children with varying linguistic backgrounds consider context when evaluating a speaker’s reliability in communicative cues.


Together with SUTD researcher Li Xiaoqian, Associate Professor Yow published a paper titled, Role of bilingual experience in children’s context-sensitive selective trust strategies in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. The research offered novel insights into how the bilingual experience influences the ability of children to discern and trust reliable speakers.


To reach their findings the researchers tasked children aged between three and five years with finding a sticker hidden in one of two boxes, which were either transparent or partially covered. An informant was present to aid their search by giving accurate or inaccurate cues to the whereabouts of the sticker. Based on the boxes used, the children knew if the informant could see the location of the sticker (visual access to information). The setup was repeated in several phases prior to the actual experiment to help the children determine if the informant was reliable in giving correct cues (accurate informant versus inaccurate informant).


The researchers soon found that children with greater language diversity were more sensitive to contextual factors when assessing the informant’s reliability than those with less language diversity. When the informant had visual access to information, these children would selectively trust the informant if he or she had previously provided accurate cues, but not when he or she provided inaccurate cues in the past.


On the other hand, if the children attributed the informant’s prior inaccuracy to the lack of visual access to information, they showed comparable trust towards both accurate and inaccurate informants. This result demonstrates bilingual children’s deeper understanding of contexts and communication nuances.


“The advantages of bilingualism in children’s social-cognitive development likely stem from a greater communicative flexibility that the children have acquired in order to interact socially with people from different language and cultural backgrounds,” explained Associate Professor Yow. 


Regularly adapting to changing communicative contexts, when switching between speakers of different languages or cultures for example, challenges and fine-tunes the children’s skilful management of their daily interactions.


Access the findings in full here.

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