Balanced bilingualism and early age of second language acquisition as the underlying mechanisms of a bilingual executive control advantage: Why variations in bilingual experiences matter

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Abstract

Recent studies revealed inconsistent evidences of a bilingual advantage in executive processing. One potential source of explanation is the multifaceted experience of the bilinguals in these studies. This study seeks to test whether bilinguals who engage in language selection more frequently would perform better in executive control tasks than those bilinguals who engage in language selection less frequently. We examined the influence of the degree of bilingualism (i.e., language proficiency, frequency of use of two languages, and age of second language acquisition) on executive functioning in bilingual young adults using a comprehensive battery of executive control tasks. Seventy-two 18- to 25-years-old English-Mandarin bilinguals performed four computerized executive function (EF) tasks (Stroop, Eriksen flanker, number-letter switching, and n-back task) that measure the EF components: inhibition, mental-set shifting, and information updating and monitoring. Results from multiple regression analyses, structural equation modeling, and bootstrapping supported the positive association between age of second language acquisition and the interference cost in the Stroop task. Most importantly, we found a significant effect of balanced bilingualism (balanced usage of and balanced proficiency in two languages) on the Stroop and number-letter task (mixing cost only), indicating that a more balanced use and a more balanced level of proficiency in two languages resulted in better executive control skills in the adult bilinguals. We did not find any significant effect of bilingualism on flanker or n-back task. These findings provided important insights to the underlying mechanisms of the bilingual cognitive advantage hypothesis, demonstrating that regular experience with extensive practice in controlling attention to their two language systems results in better performance in related EFs such as inhibiting prepotent responses and global set-shifting.

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Yow, W. Q., & Li, X. (2015). Balanced bilingualism and early age of second language acquisition as the underlying mechanisms of a bilingual executive control advantage: Why variations in bilingual experiences matter. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(FEB). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00164

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