Skip to main content

Bilingualism and cognition: A focus on mechanisms*

  • In response to commentaries on:

The goal of my keynote article, “Bilingualism and Cognition” (Valian, 2014), was to resolve the inconsistencies in effects of bilingualism on executive functions, whether the individuals were children, young adults, or old people. To summarize (and sharpen) my argument: 1.

Especially in children and young adults, benefits of bilingualism for executive functions are not reliable. In old people, there are benefits for executive functions but contradictory results on delay of cognitive impairment, depending on whether studies are retrospective or prospective.


All experiences that have benefits for executive functions and aging – and there are many – yield inconsistent effects. Bilingualism is not alone.


Three reasons for inconsistencies in bilingualism and other experiences are: a.

Executive function and cognitive reserve are broad cover terms for a variety of mechanisms, most of which are ill-understood. Because we mean different things by ‘executive function’ from one experiment to the next, we can both think we don't have an effect when we do and think we have an effect when we don’t.


Tasks are impure: apparently similar tasks measure different aspects of executive function and measure other aspects of cognition as well. Because we lack a good analysis of tasks, we too often do not know what we are measuring. I encourage readers to examine the demos in the supplementary materials of the keynote article to see for themselves what the tasks are like.


Individuals engage in many different activities that may be on a par with bilingualism in their benefits.


Different types of bilingual experience are unlikely to explain the variability of findings, given the inconsistencies in extant data on varieties of bilingualism.


There is a benefit of bilingualism, but bilingualism competes with other sources of benefits. Especially for children and young adults, whose daily lives are full of cognitively enriching and challenging experiences, we should expect variability in effects of being bilingual.


The way forward is to focus on underlying mechanisms.

Hide All

I thank the commentators! They have provided a rich set of suggestions about how to think about the current data and where to go next. I wish I could do justice to the full range of ideas that they have proposed, but time and space constraints prevent that. This work was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS-0236700).

Hide All
Costa, A., Hernández, M., & Calabria, M. (2014). On invisibility and experimental evidence. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000492.
Kaushanskaya, M., & Prior, A. (2014). Variability in the effects of bilingualism on cognition: It is not just about cognition, it is also about bilingualism. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000510.
Klein, R. (2014). Is there a benefit of bilingualism for executive functioning? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000613.
Kroll, J. (2014). On the consequences of bilingualism: We need language and the brain to understand cognition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000637.
Luk, G. (2014). Who are the bilinguals (and monolinguals)? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000649.
Macnamara, B. N., & Conway, A. R. A. (2014). Novel evidence in support of the bilingual advantage: Influences of task demands and experience on cognitive control and working memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21, 520525. doi: 10.3758/s13423-013-0524-y.
Marton, K. (2014). Theoretically driven experiments may clarify questions about the bilingual advantage. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000546.
Mishra, R. (2014). Let's not forget about language proficiency and cultural variations while linking bilingualism to executive control. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000455.
Miyake, A., & Friedman, N. P. (2012). The nature and organization of individual differences in executive functions: Four general conclusions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21 (1), 814, doi: 10.1177/0963721411429458.
Paap, K. (2014). Do many hones dull the bilingual whetstone? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000431.
Poeppel, D. (2012). The maps problem and the mapping problem: two challenges for a cognitive neuroscience of speech and language. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 29 (1–2), 3455, doi: 10.1080/02643294.2012.710600.
Titone, D., Pivneva, I., Sheikh, N., Webb, N., & Whitford, V. (2014). Doubling down on multifactorial approaches to the study of bilingualism. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, Bilingualism and Cognition. doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000595.
Valian, V. (2014). Bilingualism and cognition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi:10.1017/S1366728914000522.
Zahodne, L., & Manly, J. (2014). Does bilingualism improve cognitive aging? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, doi: 10.1017/S1366728914000601.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1366-7289
  • EISSN: 1469-1841
  • URL: /core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed