Bilinguals Can “See” Into Others’ Minds

Big brown eyeAdd the understanding of other minds to the list of benefits produced by bilingualism.

Humans are not born with the idea that the minds of other people have different contents. In that way, we are self-absorbed. It’s only through gradual experience that we begin to understand that others might have a different point of view. Even some adults have trouble understanding that concept.

The new research

In a study, researchers have seemed to find that children who speak more than one language develop the “theory of mind” ability earlier and can keep it stronger.

Drs. Samantha Fan and Zoe Liberman of the University of Chicago conducted a simple experiment. The researchers sat children aged four to six across from an experimenter. Between them was a grid with objects ranging from small to large, some of which were blocked from the experimenter’s view. The children could plainly observe that the adult couldn’t see everything on the grid. The experimenter would then ask the children to move one of the objects, one with a counterpart of a different size being hidden from them.

For example, the adult might ask the child to move the small car. There is a medium car visible to the experimenter and a smaller one only visible to the child. Those children who were either bilingual or were regularly exposed to another language moved the medium car 75 percent of the time, demonstrating their ability to “see” what the experimenter saw. Only 50 percent of monolingual children moved the medium car; the others moved the small car that only they could see.

The growing list of language learning benefits

While this was a fairly rudimentary experiment and is far from establishing empirical evidence, it adds another skill to the pile of cognitive benefits that bilingual individuals are already thought to possess over their monolingual counterparts.

Other benefits are thought to include better attention to and planning of complex tasks. Bilingual sufferers of dementia also don’t start showing symptoms until five years after monolingual dementia patients.

Although it’s tempting to think of language learning as a panacea of mental improvement, the work that has been done on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism is still in its infancy. That being said, when you add up the tangible benefits of language learning, like improved study skills, more marketability in the international workforce, and better communicative skills with the exploding US immigrant population, it’s becoming harder to ignore how transformative language learning can be.

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