ADHD News & Research

Study: Bilingualism Linked to Few Cognitive Advantages Among Children with Attention Problems

Research shows that speaking a second language correlates to greater executive functioning and visual processing in neurotypical patients. In children with attention problems, the benefits of bilingualism are neither clear, nor consistent.

August 27, 2019

The benefits of bilingualism in mental functions have long been observed and studied. Compared to their monolingual peers, bilingual individuals have enhanced cognitive capacities in executive functioning and visual processing — areas that include inhibition and visual discrimination skills. But in a recent study1 of children with neurodevelopmental disorders and attention problems, the cognitive benefits of bilingualism stopped short.

The study, published last month in the Journal of Attention Disorders, found that the “bilingual advantage” seldom played a role in mitigating attention deficits among participants. These findings come from researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, the Columbia University Medical Center, and Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center who assessed 311 bilingual (English- and Spanish-speaking) and 165 monolingual (English-speaking only) children in three cognitive processes — interference control, visual processing, and verbal fluency. Conditions like attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), anxiety, autism, and disruptive behavior were among the comorbid diagnoses represented among participants.

For the interference control measure, participants were shown a series of shapes and told to give a competing response (like “circle” when presented with a square). The researchers found that language status was not related to the children’s performance, but attention levels were, with a marked decrease in performance linked to higher levels of attention problems. The results were contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis that bilingualism would present an advantage, as was the case in a prior study on attention issues within typically developing children.

Monolingual children outperformed their bilingual peers in the verbal fluency assessment, where participants were tasked with rapidly naming words under several semantic categories, like food and colors. The findings align with those in prior studies that revealed a monolingual advantage over the skill across the board.

The visual processing measure, which had children match a given figure to as many as five possible choices, was the only area where a slim bilingual advantage appeared. As hypothesized, bilingual children did better than their monolingual peers, but only at higher levels of attention problems. Monolingual children, however, did better at the measure at lower levels of attention problems.

“The opposing effects of bilingualism and attention problems on cognitive processes appear to operate differently among children with neurodevelopment problems… than they do among typically developing children,” the study concludes.

Researchers say their findings can have implications in the classroom. Given their visual processing advantage, teachers can showcase bilingual learners as “positive peer models” during activities that focus on these skills. Educators should also be aware of bilingual children’s potential difficulties during class discussions and in writing assignments, based on the findings of the verbal fluency assessment. Allowing more time to complete tasks under this category, the researchers posed, can help to counter their challenges. Similarly, teachers should know that children with high levels of attention problems, regardless of language skills, may struggle with classroom rules like raising one’s hand before answering a question—an activity involving interference control.

The research team listed several limitations in the study. There was no measure of Spanish language proficiency among participants, who were only identified as bilingual if parents reported that the children were exposed to Spanish at home. The age at which bilingual children were first exposed to English was also undetermined — an important parameter that may affect bilingualism’s benefits on cognition. The participants, furthermore, all came from low-income backgrounds, limiting how far the findings can be applied to children from other socio-economic backgrounds.

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1 Hardy, L. M., Tomb, M., Cha, Y., Banker, S., Muñoz, F., Paul, A., & Margolis, A. E. “Bilingualism May Be Protective Against Executive Function and Visual Processing Deficits Among Children With Attention Problems.” Journal of Attention Disorders (Jul. 2019). doi: 10.1177/1087054719861745