Effective communication requires the ability to take others’ perspectives. In a new study from University of Chicago psychologists they discovered that children from multilingual environments are better at interpreting a speaker’s meaning than children who are exposed only to their native tongue. The most novel finding is that the children do not even have to be bilingual themselves; it is the exposure to more than one language that is the key for building effective social communication skills.
Not clear from the press release and the abstract, I checked in the actual paper if the researchers also checked for possible other influences, and they did:
Parents also provided demographic information about their child and their family. To control for potential covariation, we collected information on maternal education and family income, which did not differ systematically across the language groups.
From the press release:
“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 Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and an expert on language and social development. “These early socio-linguistic experiences could hone children’s skills at taking other people’s perspectives and provide them tools for effective communication.”
Study co-author Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology and an internationally known expert on communication and cognition, said this study is part of a bigger research program that attempts to explain how humans learn to communicate. “Children are really good at acquiring language. They master the vocabulary and the syntax of the language, but they need more tools to be effective communicators,” said Keysar. “A lot of communication is about perspective taking, which is what our study measures.”
Keysar, Kinzler and their co-authors, doctoral students in psychology Samantha Fan and Zoe Liberman, had 72 4- to 6- year- old children participate in a social communication task. The children were from one of three language backgrounds: monolinguals (children who heard and spoke only English and had little experience with other languages); exposures (children who primarily heard and spoke English, but they had some regular exposure to speakers of another language); and bilinguals (children who were exposed to two languages on a regular basis and were able to speak and understand both languages). There were 24 children in each group.
Each child who participated sat on one side of a table across from an adult and played a communication game that required moving objects in a grid. The child was able to see all of the objects, but the adult on the other side of the grid had some squares blocked and could not see all the objects. To make sure that children understood that the adult could not see everything, the child first played the game from the adult’s side.
For the critical test, the adult would ask the child to move an object in the grid. For example, she would say, “I see a small car, could you move the small car?” The child could see three cars: small, medium and large. The adult, however, could only see two cars: the medium and the large ones. To correctly interpret the adult’s intended meaning, the child would have to take into account that the adult could not see the smallest car, and move the one that the adult actually intended — the medium car.
The monolingual children were not as good at understanding the adult’s intended meaning in this game, as they moved the correct object only about 50 percent of the time. But mere exposure to another language improved children’s ability to understand the adult’s perspective and select the correct objects. The children in the exposure group selected correctly 76 percent of the time, and the bilingual group took the adult’s perspective in the game correctly 77 percent of the time.
“Language is social,” noted Fan. “Being exposed to multiple languages gives you a very different social experience, which could help children develop more effective communication skills.”
Liberman added, “Our discovery has important policy implications, for instance it suggests previously unrealized advantages for bilingual education.”
Some parents seem wary of second-language exposure for their young children, Kinzler commented. Yet, in addition to learning another language, their children might unintentionally be getting intensive training in perspective taking, which could make them better communicators in any language.
Abstract of the study:
Early language exposure is essential to developing a formal language system, but may not be sufficient for communicating effectively. To understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective. Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective taking. We tested children on a task that required perspective taking to interpret a speaker’s intended meaning. Monolingual children failed to interpret the speaker’s meaning dramatically more often than both bilingual children and children who were exposed to a multilingual environment but were not bilingual themselves. Children who were merely exposed to a second language performed as well as bilingual children, despite having lower executive-function scores. Thus, the communicative advantages demonstrated by the bilinguals may be social in origin, and not due to enhanced executive control. For millennia, multilingual exposure has been the norm. Our study shows that such an environment may facilitate the development of perspective-taking tools that are critical for effective communication.