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Parenting Tips: How Bilingualism Can Save You From the Terrible Twos

Leash child


“Look at Mommy!” “Come with Daddy!” Kids in the terrible two’s and even three’s just don’t seem to listen. Their world appears to be full of distractions. One moment they are giving you their undivided attention as you ask them to sit still, the next they are waddling off as fast as possible in the crowded supermarket. Their attention seems almost hopelessly uncontrollable. They dart from one toy to the next, and eventually you wonder how on earth their teacher gets them to focus for even a minute in school. Is there any way to reduce the distractions of these problematic preschoolers? A cure is bilingualism. Being bilingual means that you have the ability to speak in two or even several languages. Now, I’m not saying popular children’s shows teaching simple phrases from another language, such as Dora the Explorer, may have the most influence on your child’s attentional control, but actually being fairly fluent in multiple languages has a positive effect on preschooler’s attention.

There are certain processes that come to us easily, such as tying a shoe, turning on the television, and even reading. These are automatic processes, meaning they have been practiced over and over again until they require little cognitive effort. The opposite, controlled processes, are much slower and take a lot of effort to perform. This occurs often when you are learning a new skill such as riding a bike when you are little, or how to use that fancy coffee maker you just bought. Automatic processes and controlled processes are two pathways of cognition that are linked to attention, which monitors them. Attentional control allows you to inhibit the automatic pathway, permitting the controlled process to occur first.

How is this tested? Preschoolers still have limited forms of expression. They also do not have the best grasp on language, which is demonstrated by those hilarious moments when you catch them trying to read a book upside down or excitedly exclaim “I run-ed over there!” This is why a traditional Stroop Task is challenging, since it involves a higher level of reading and language.

The traditional Stroop task tests individuals on words and colors, where the participant must say the color of the word rather than the word itself. Congruent trials involve matching both the color of the ink to the meaning of the word (for example, RED would be written in red ink). Incongruent trials are the opposite, where the meaning of the word and the color do not associate with each other (for example, RED would be written in blue ink). Since the ages 2 and 3 are still quite inexperienced with the skills necessary to perform this task, new, modified versions of the Stroop task have been developed.

The Day/Night task is simple, only consisting of two symbols. The child is presented with a picture of a sun and a moon. In incongruent trials, the child must say the opposite time of day associated with the symbol. A sun would correspond with “night,” and a moon would correspond with “day.” In a congruent task, the child would respond to a sun with “day” and a moon with “night.” Interestingly, in previous research, this task did not demonstrate any differences in attention between bilingual and monolingual children.

The researchers developed another task, the Bivalent Shape Task, which is a computerized test involving three images of basic shapes, such as circles and squares. There are two images constantly at the bottom of the screen, which correspond to buttons, allowing children to manually respond. Pressing a button removes any language barriers as well as any problems with literacy.  One image is, for example, a red circle, and the other is a blue square. Then a third, larger image is shown in the middle of the screen, which determines if the trial is incongruent or congruent. The children were asked to match the shape of the big image to one of the images below. In congruent trials, the color would also match the appropriate shape below (for example, a red circle matches the red circle below). In incongruent trials, the color of the big image would match one shape, while the shape of the big image would match the other (for example a blue circle matches the blue square in color, but the red circle in shape).

How do these experiments link the automatic and controlled pathways? In the traditional Stroop task, processing the actual word is automatic, while processing for the color is controlled. However, in the Night/Day task, saying the time of day corresponding to the symbol presented would be automatic, since that information is well known. In the Bivalent Shape Task, processing for color would be the automatic process, while processing for shape requires a little more time. In these trials, attentional control keeps you from blurting out the wrong, incongruent answer before you even have time to fully process for a more difficult task. Therefore, these individuals have better accuracy on incongruent trials since they can inhibit the automatic processes well enough to perform controlled processes.

Healthy children of preschool age who were monolingual and both Spanish and English speaking were tested. They first learned how to do each task and familiarize themselves with the computers until they were experts. Then, the testing began…

What they found was quite fascinating. In the Day/Night task, both bilingual and monolingual children were pretty good with the congruent trials. However, both were equally bad at the incongruent trials. But the data from the Bivalent Shape Task is the most exciting. In the congruent trials, both performed well, however, in the incongruent task, bilinguals performed significantly better than the monolinguals. Interestingly, the bilinguals performed statistically no differently than the congruent task.  Therefore, we can assume that the bilingual children have better control over their attention.

Bilingual children can not only benefit from the useful skill of being able to speak multiple languages, but also have better attentional control than children who are monolingual. Therefore, they can better inhibit automatic information, and focus in on controlled processes. This is useful in school when children are learning new materials, or maybe even in the supermarket when you turn your back for just one second…


Esposito, A. G., Baker-Ward, L. & Mueller, S. T. (2013). Interference suppression vs. response inhibition: An explanation for the absence of a bilingual advantage in preschoolers’ Stroop task performance. Cognitive Development, 28, 354-363.


To read the original article, click here.

  1. May 7th, 2014 at 17:04 | #1

    I found this article extremely interesting for a few reasons. First, I thought it was fascinating to see how the Stroop Task is applicable to so many different groups of people. In class, we discussed how it’s applicable to individuals with early onset dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease and how the task can even predict who, from a group of middle-aged adults, is going to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. The Stroop Task was not significantly modified for this age group, however. This study showed how the modification of the task can apply to the complete opposite age group and provide researchers and the public with extremely different results. I also found this article extremely interesting because language and bilingualism is very important in businesses and the professional world today. I went abroad for my first semester and came back fluent, however, I have realized how difficult it is to maintain another language that was learned so late in life without daily, consistent practice. People I know who came from bilingual households and have been speaking one or two other languages since they began to speak English do not practice on a consistent basis at all, but are still able to retain almost complete fluency. This clearly shows the importance of language learning at a young age. The current study reveals the benefits of this in a completely different area, which is useful to achieving bilingualism in the current world and to parenting because the study displays how important and positive the effects of bilingualism can be.

  2. May 8th, 2014 at 13:52 | #2

    I really liked this article for a few reasons:

    1. It is ridiculously well-written. With a consistent voice and an accessible tone the author very effectively manages to explain the complicated trials of the experiment in a way that is coherent even to someone who does not know much about Cognitive Psychology. The piece also flows quite well; the author transitions from topic to topic seamlessly, spending just enough time on each to explain it properly.

    2. It is through. The author explains everything one would need in order to effectively understand the topic. Yes, I suppose the piece is a bit on the longer side, and pretty sparse when it comes to multimedia, but that sort of thing matters less to me. I think it is far more important to cover all bases than to, and this post has all the relevant facts it needs.

    3. It is funny (kinda). Alright, maybe it is not laugh-out-loud-and-snort-juice-out-of-your-nose funny, but this author clearly sees the importance of a little bit of humor to keep the reader engaged. In the first paragraph, for example, she draws the reader in with a lighthearted anecdote that anyone who has ever dealt with small children can relate to.

    4. It is prevalent. Besides Psychology nerds, this article would be meaningful and useful to anyone with children or who works with language. As someone who spends a large chunk of my time doing the latter, for example, it is nice to know (assuming that the results translate to adults) I need to have a lot of attentional control. And it makes sense: learning a new language is a controlled process, and I often find myself having to turn off cues from one language to speak in another.

    All-in-all, good post, and fun to read.

  3. May 8th, 2014 at 16:25 | #3

    I thought this article was extremely interesting. I have always wished that I had learned a second language earlier in life not only because it seemed so cool to be bilingual but also because it seemed really useful. It is clear now that it is actually so important. I think it would be interesting, though, to see how this bilingualism affects individuals in the future. It is clear that bilingualism increases attentional ability, but does that play out later in life? Will individuals who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimers later in life find it more difficult to learn a second language? Since they have these breakdowns in attention, and perform worse on the Stroop task even earlier in life, would they also have difficulty with learning two languages in the first place, or does learning two languages itself help a person to increase their attentional control? If this is the case, it would be interesting to see whether individuals who are predisposed to Alzheimers have lower overall frequency of bilingualism. I wonder if it is possible that this bilingualism (or even trilingualism) could possibly provide a type of buffer for the breakdowns in attention, and Alzheimers would onset later or more slowly in these individuals.

  4. Falcon
    November 29th, 2014 at 10:20 | #4

    This post is very interesting because I just read an article on bilingualism and its effects on language and executive control tasks. It’s truly fascinating how being able to speak more than one language can indirectly help in controlled processes and attentional control. I always heard people talking about how bilingualists tend to live longer than monolinguists, but I never understood why. This blog post and paper are very useful in helping me understand why this is. According to Bialystok et al. (2007), the age of dementia onset was four years earlier in monolingual patients than in bilingual patients. That’s four more years of life! Being able to speak more than one language, not only, gives you a few more years of life, but also it clearly helps in attentional control, as shown in the Bivalent Shape Task. Like in the Stroop Task, in the Bivalent Shape Task, participants have to inhibit the automatic pathway and let out the controlled pathway. It’s also interesting to point out that the Stroop Task was able to predict which participants were more likely to be diagnosed with some sort of dementia based on their scores of the Stroop Task.

    Some questions I have include, what exactly defines bilingualism? Is it being able to speak two languages fluently? Does being able to write in a language count as being “fluent”? I know many international students who speak very well in their native tongue but can only write like a five-year old. Does being able to speak and not write make a difference? Or vice versa.

    Also, are the effects of bilingualism dependent or independent of the similarity of the two languages? Like, would someone who speaks Chinese and German (very dissimilar languages) be better or worst at executive control functions than someone who speaks French and English (more similar languages)?

  5. December 2nd, 2014 at 19:22 | #5

    While reading this post, I was really impressed by the adaptation of the Stroop task for younger, or illiterate participants. I had never considered before that the Stroop test requires literacy as a basic skill for completion of the test. This made me think more about the difference between automatic and controlled processes. Logic suggests that an automatic process happens without thought, thus being “automatic.” I often catch myself thinking that “automatic” means something we are born with, an innate response to a certain stimulus. Controlled processes, on the other hand, are defined as being effortful. When I think of controlled processes, I think of learned behaviors, things that take time to conduct and that are not natural and innate. What I constantly forget, however, is that learned processes CAN become automatic – such as the automatic process of reading. I thought it was very clever of the experimenters to switch to a stimulus response that would be automatic even for two year olds – distinguishing the difference between night and day. This sounds like the perfect solution, and still produces the same results, thus highlighting the same difference between automatic and controlled processes that can be seen in the Stroop Task.
    Going beyond the basic differences between automatic and controlled processes, I also found it extremely interesting that bilingualism lends itself to better attentional control. Thus, when the stimulus being presented requires attentional control (ie. is not automatic) bilingual students will perform better. This makes sense! In the article we read for class, “Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind,” experimenters Ellen Bialystok and Fergus I. M. Craik researched the effect of bilingualism on cognitive functioning. What they found was that bilingual children were better able to resolve conflicts between stimuli. Thus, they were better able to “turn off” irrelevant stimuli and focus on one thing at a time. Thus, bilingual children were better at controlling their attentional resources. The two studies prove the same thing: bilingualism increases attentional control, making it easier for bilingual children to perform controlled processing tasks. This is pretty compelling research that make me want to raise my children bilingually – if they are better at controlling attention, they might have better working memory, do better in school, and in other critical life tasks!

  6. December 3rd, 2014 at 21:13 | #6

    This post nicely related to what we discussed in class today. There are quite a few pros and cons regarding bilingualism. This post reiterates the findings that bilingual people have better attentional control. Like we talked about today, both languages appear to be active in one’s mind, and bilingual people have better control over switching between two tasks. In the article by Bialystok and Craik (2010), they found that bilinguals are better at Stroop task than monolinguists, and so did this article. Overall, bilingualism seems to have real benefits on cognition.

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