What infant memory studies tells us about the bilingual advantage
Like any other area of research, the study of bilingualism is a difficult enterprise, and one of the greatest pleasures of academic life is to read papers whose authors are unafraid to acknowledge the contradictions in their own findings and to raise questions, instead of providing answers.
A recent paper by Natalie Brito (Columbia University), Núria Sebastián-Gallés (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and Rachel Barr (Georgetown University) manages to do just that in addressing a central question in bilingualism research, the effects of learning two or more languages on our cognitive abilities.
Does bilingualism make us more attentive, more flexible, more immune to cognitive problems later in life? If so, how could bilingual experience produce such an advantage?
One theory links the bilingual advantage to early childhood and the need to discriminate between the sounds of two languages and to detect two sets of patterns, instead of one, within the stream of speech.
This experience may make bilingual babies better language learners, more attentive to language structures and more flexible in assigning meanings to words but does it also make them smarter? Do they, for instance, develop better memory?