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Bilingualism and cognition


The relation between bilingualism and cognition is informative about the connection between language and mind. From the perspective of language, the question is how bilingualism might help or hinder cognition – narrowly interpreted here as executive function. From the perspective of higher cognition, the question is what kinds of experiences improve executive function. Reported cognitive benefits from bilingualism range from none to substantial as a function of age, type of bilingualism (e.g., life-long balanced vs later-onset or infrequent use of the other language), syntactic relation between the two languages, socio-economic and immigrant status, task, and laboratory. To understand the variability and inconsistencies in results with bilingualism, I analyze concepts of executive function and cognitive reserve and examine the range of factors (such as active video game playing, education, musical training, and aerobic exercise) that are known to correlate with or to improve executive function. I suggest that a) “executive function” is a complex set of cognitive processes, the components of which are sometimes minimally correlated with each other, depending on the task; b) bilingualism is inconsistently correlated with superior executive function and delayed onset of dementia; c) all speakers (mono- or bilingual) have non-linguistic ways of improving executive function; and d) benefits from bilingualism – and all cognitively challenging activities – are inconsistent because individuals vary in the number and kinds of experiences they have that promote superior executive function.

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