Home > Attention, Language > “To help Dora climb, you gotta say subida. Can you say subida?” – Boots in Dora the Explorer

“To help Dora climb, you gotta say subida. Can you say subida?” – Boots in Dora the Explorer


Subida! Subida! Climb! Like Dora in the children’s television show Dora the Explorer, approximately 20% of the American population speaks more than one language fluently. (Grosjean, 2012) They are able to watch Spanish soap operas without subtitles, read the Harry Potter series in German, and ultimately pass along the language to their children. In schools across the country, students are learning a second language every day in the classroom to become bilingual.

What is bilingualism? Bilingual speakers are able to speak two languages fluently and proficiently, which requires that both languages be active and competing. They both can be retrieved equally from the mental lexicon, which is the storage of vocabulary and language within the brain. Every time an English/ Spanish bilingual speaker wants to articulate “car,” the words car and Coche are available to say. They have to actively suppress the urge to say coche when they want to say car. It is a competition between the two languages for the attention of the speaker. Words of both languages are actively available for use at any time.

There are many obvious benefits to speaking a second language. First, you have the ability to travel around the world more easily. You can ask for directions and read street signs. You can order food at the local restaurant with ease and negotiate prices with street vendors. This all makes traveling a more enjoyable experience. Second, you get to see foreign countries as if you are living there yourself. You have the ability to interact with more people from different cultures. Speaking Spanish while traveling throughout South America or Spain, you get to learn about where the best local restaurants are and secret places the locals like to go. You get a more personal experience of different cultures. Lastly, you have an advantage in the workplace. You have a skill that allows you to interact with many people, which is an asset to many companies. Along with these obvious benefits, there are also many benefits of learning a second language for your mind.

In recent years, cognitive psychologists have been exploring the cognitive benefits of being bilingual. They have found that early bilingual speakers, people who have been fluent in two languages from seven years old or younger, have higher executive function. Executive function is the ability to focus on one stimulus in the presence of many distractors within your environment. Suppressing the urge to say car when you are speaking in Spanish takes executive function. Car is a distractor. Having to continuously suppress the language that is not being used gives the brain more practice at moderating distractors, which is why early bilinguals were found to have greater executive function than monolinguals, who only speak one language.

 A disadvantage in early bilingualism is a decrease in lexical access, which is the ability to retrieve a word from the mental lexicon. Bilinguals have double the amount of words available in their mental lexicon for every object. This requires more time and energy to retrieve a word like car or coche.  There is greater interference from other words, which blocks the ability to retrieve the word that you are searching for. The more uncommon words have greater difficulty of retrieving in comparison to monolinguals.

Knowing the difference in the lexical access and executive function between monolinguals and bilinguals, S. D. Pelhams and L. Abrams wanted to see if there were differences between early bilinguals and late bilinguals, and determine the causes of these differences. Late Bilinguals became fluent in a second language after the age of thirteen while early bilinguals become fluent in a second language before the age of seven years old. S. D. Pelhams and L. Abrams wanted to see whether habitual use of language on an everyday basis or developmental changes due use two languages throughout development is responsible for these advantages and disadvantages. In the experiment, 30 monolingual English speakers, 30 Spanish-English early bilingual, and 30 Spanish-English late bilingual participants were given a picture naming test to test their lexical access and attentional network test to test their executive function.

 Unknown    images-1    images-2  images-3

The picture naming task involved observing and naming black and white line drawings as fast as possible. Shown in figure 2 below, the response times were observed for high frequency words, commonly used words, and low frequency words, less common words. It also compared response time between monolinguals and bilinguals. Pelham and Abrams found that early and late bilinguals had similar picture naming response times for low frequency words. This revealed that there is no difference in lexical access between early and late bilingual speakers. However, both had longer response times than monolinguals. This represents a decline in lexical access of both early and late bilinguals in comparison to monolinguals. Habitual use of both languages is responsible for the lexical access deficiency. Having both languages active results in more interference and longer response time. Developmental changes in early bilinguals are not responsible for the reduction in lexical access, because early bilinguals do not show greater deficits in comparison to late bilinguals. High frequency words showed no significant changes in response time between monolingual and bilingual speakers.

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 7.32.04 PM

The attentional network test involved a target arrow appearing in the middle of a computer screen. The participant had to press the left or right arrow key on the keyboard in the direction of that target arrow. As this occurs, multiple distractor arrows would also appear on the right and left of the sides of the target arrow. These distractor arrows will point in the same direction, not point in any direction, or point in the opposite direction of the target arrow representing congruent, neutral, or incongruent trials respectively. Shown in figure 3, The speed of the response time was observed and studied. Pelham and Abrams found that the early and late bilinguals had faster response times in comparison to the monolinguals in the incongruent trials. Bilinguals have greater ability to ignore distractors, which is a result of increased executive function. There were no significant differences in the congruent and neutral trial. Pelham and Abrams found no significant differences between early and late bilinguals in executive function. Because early bilinguals do not show greater executive function, habitual use of both languages is responsible for the increase in executive function.

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 7.32.17 PM

Finding no significant differences between early and late bilinguals on both tests, Pelham and Abrams determined that the habitual use of both languages on a daily basis is responsible for the decrease in lexical access and increase in executive functions instead of mental developmental changes within the brain. If developmental changes in early bilinguals were responsible, there would be a larger decline in lexical access and greater executive function in early bilinguals in comparison to late bilinguals.

In all, there are cognitive advantages and disadvantages to being able to speak two languages if you use them regularly. No matter if you are learning how to speak Spanish while abroad in Spain or are a little girl like Dora, you will experience the same cognitive effects of being a bilingual. Like Dora says in both languages at the end of every episode, Lo hacimos! We did it!



Grosjean, F. (2012) Bilinguals in the United States. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from Psychology Today website: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201205/bilinguals-in-the-united-states

Pelham, S. D. and L. Abrams. (2014) Cognitive Advantages and Disadvantages in Early and Late Bilinguals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Lerning, Memory, and Cognition. 40, 313-325.

Link to  Pelham and Abram’s article, “Cognitive Advantages and Disadvantages in Early and Late Bilinguals”: http://0-psycnet.apa.org.library.colby.edu/journals/xlm/40/2/313.pdf

  1. May 10th, 2014 at 03:32 | #1

    Well written and interesting blog post! I could see how this might encourage more people to go out and learn a second language. It might also discourage some people to learn a new language due to the decrease in lexical access. I recently watched a video of a polyglot, which a person who can master multiple languages. He spoke about 9 languages fluently, which really impressed me. Based on your post, polyglots would most likely have an even more visible decline in lexical access compared to bilinguals, but would also probably have a much greater increase in executive function. Although bilingualism may result in a longer time to retrieve words due to the decrease in lexical access, this necessary time to retrieve words is probably negligible in real-world application, and I believe that the benefits of bilingualism for executive function, which encompass various cognitive processes such as memory, attention, controlled inhibition, and learning, outweigh the small decrease in lexical access that results from storing a larger number of words in the brain. A decrease in lexical access due to bilingualism may be related to having to switch to a different set of lexical and sub-lexical processes each time there is a change in the language spoken. This may be because different languages have, in the case of lexical processes, different patterns that activate different meanings, and in the case of sub-lexical processes, have different elements that have varying ways of being assembled.

  2. mekopp
    October 22nd, 2015 at 17:35 | #2

    Reading your blog post made me think of how effective children’s television shows like Dora the Explorer actually are. In my lifespan development class with Tarja we’ve been talking about different ways on how to look at a child’s cognitive development. Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory emphasizes the importance of social context and social interactions when learning a language. Yes, imitation and reinforcement contribute to language learning, but the more crucial part is social networking. Therefore, TV shows fail to provide sufficient support for infants and children because they are lacking appropriate timing and context related feedback. Cooperative dialogues with more knowledgable members of the society (who speak the language) are what really drives language acquisition (Vygotsky uses the term scaffolding to describe this help and guidance). Overall it can be said that language acquisition is a truly complex process that incorporates nature, nurture, and context.

You must be logged in to post a comment.