The surprising results of a new study on children's understanding could have significant implications from education to socialization, and reveal an as yet unrealized advantage of bilingual learning.
The University of Chicago study, published last week in Psychological Science, adds to the body of knowledge about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, but is the first to note the social benefit of being exposed to two languages, whether fully bilingual or not.
The findings show that children who can speak two languages are, in addition to learning language, learning how to process more information from an outside perspective. Such empathetic observing is foundational in good communicators, and ought to allay fears some parents have expressed about second-language exposure.
Psychology professor and study coauthor Boaz Keysar noted that the study is part of a larger body of research into how people learn to communicate. "Children are really good at acquiring language," he said. "They master the vocabulary and the syntax of the language, but they need more tools to be effective communicators. A lot of communication is about perspective taking, which is what our study measures."
The clever design of the study put 72 four- to six-year-olds in a situation in which they were required to view a situation from the perspective of the adult speaker seated opposite them in order to correctly respond to a prompt. The child could see that the adult's view of the area between them was partially blocked, and actually was shown the area from the adult's side to be certain they understood the impediment's effect.
The adult then asked the child to move the small car that they could see. To be successful, the child would have to be aware that the request was about the smallest car the adult could see. From the child's perspective, that would be the medium-sized car. The child's position allowed a view of the smallest of three cars, but the adult could only see the largest two cars. To correctly respond to the adult's request, the child would move what she or he saw as the medium car, but what the adult would see as the small car.
Monolinguals, or kids who heard and spoke English but had little or no experience with other languages, got this right half the time. Bilingual kids were able to take the adult's perspective correctly 77 percent of the time. Just behind them was the third category of kids-those who mainly heard and spoke English but had some regular exposure to another language-with 76 percent accuracy.
This was perhaps the most interesting discovery: that children do not even have to be bilingual to build more effective social communication skills. They could merely have exposure to more than one language to acquire the benefit.
"Children in multilingual environments have extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom, and observing the social patterns and allegiances that are formed based on language usage," explained coauthor Katherine Kinzler. "These early socio-linguistic experiences could hone children's skills at taking other people's perspectives and provide them tools for effective communication."
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(Sources: University of Chicago; Science Daily)