Anyone who knows me should know that I start salivating whenever I even hear the word “language.” Those who know me even better know that I speak 4 languages, some more fluently than others. Whenever I see articles that attest to the fact that those individuals who are talented enough to master more than one language, I can’t help but get a little excited because it makes me feel special. I mean, who wouldn’t? However, is there really a correlation between multilingualism and cognitive performance?
My interest in multilingualism was sparked when I watched this video by a not-too-famous YouTuber. Spoiler alert: she’s not actually speaking those languages, that’s what we in the industry call “gibberish.” So I got to thinking about how she must be cognitively advantaged if she can even feign knowledge of all of those languages. However, a later video of hers disproves this. So I did some research.
An experiment conducted by Simon and Wolf in 1963 put bilinguals and monolinguals to the test in cognitive performance. In their task, participants were presented with a color and a shape on one side of a screen. If the figure was red, they had to push a button on the right side of the keyboard. If it was blue, a button on the left was pressed. The experiment varied in congruent and non-congruent trials where sometimes the color and the side of the screen it was presented on were similar, and sometimes that was not the case. The experiment showed that both types of participants performed equally, disproving that cognitive function was superior in bilingual people. This task was performed with people of varying levels of multilingual proficiency. For example, one trial consisted of native English speakers, native English speakers who also spoke Spanish, and English-Spanish interpreters whose jobs require them to be fluent in multiple languages. All participants performed the same regardless of level of proficiency in multiple languages.
Furthermore, research has shown that the level of proficiency in basic lexical tasks is decreased across languages in bilingual participants. Time and attention are divided between the two languages, so the learner doesn’t go as in-depth into the language as monolingual speakers of the same language do. In a fluency test, participants were given a letter or category and one minute to name as many words as possible either beginning with the letter or in the category. At the end of the minute, bilingual participants showed a much lower total number of words said than their monolingual counterparts.
So the next time you think that learning a language will help you in the workplace, you need to weigh in on the good, the bad, and the ugly of being multilingual. Yes, you’ll be able to communicate with several different types of people, but does the benefit really outweigh the cognitive cost?