English-Language Learners

Can Bilingualism Counteract Effects of Poverty?

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 28, 2012 1 min read
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The bilingual brain is sharper than the monolingual one, more and more research is showing. People with fluency in at least two languages have better attention spans, enhanced memory, among other cognitive advantages.

But do those same cognitive strengths show up in bilingual children who are low-income? In other words, can bilingualism help children in low-income communities overcome the enormous cognitive challenges that poverty presents?

A study from Pascale Engel de Abreu of the University of Luxembourg and colleagues takes a look at that very question. Their answer in a nutshell: yes. The study was published in Pyschological Science.

Researchers tested 80 2nd graders from low-income families living in Portugal and Luxembourg. Half of them were first- or second-generation Portuguese immigrants to Luxembourg, who spoke both Luxembourgish and Portuguese. The other half lived in Northern Portugal and spoke only Portuguese. The study first tested vocabulary by asking the children to name items presented to them in pictures, with both groups answering in Portuguese and the immigrant children also answering in Luxembourgish.

Then the researchers tested how the students represented knowledge in memory by asking them to find a missing piece that would complete a specific geometric shape. They also measured their memory through various tasks and examined how they could direct and focus their attention when distractions were present. In one visual task, the children were shown a row of yellow fish on a computer screen and were asked to press a button to indicate which direction the fish in the center of the screen faced.

The bilingual kids knew fewer vocabulary words than their monolingual peers, the researchers found, but demonstrated more ability to keep their attention focused on the tasks at hand, in spite of distractions.

“This is the first study to show that, although they may face linguistic challenges, minority bilingual children from low-income families demonstrate important strengths in other cognitive domains,” said Engel de Abreu in a news release.

The upshot, the researchers said, is that even more scholars ought to delve into studying the promise of using second language teaching as an academic intervention for poor kids who are struggling.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.