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Speaking a Mile in Someone Else's Shoes

A new study suggests children exposed to other languages better understand what other people want.
(Photo: Simon Ingram/Flickr)

(Photo: Simon Ingram/Flickr)

In the midst of a debate over the potential cognitive benefits of learning a second language, new research suggests it may have social value as well. Actually, even being around people who speak different languages may help children learn to take others' perspectives, making communication more effective for everyone.

"[E]xposure to multiple languages is, and has been for millennia, an integral part of human development," writes a team led by University of Chicago psychology graduate student Samantha Fan in Psychological Science. "Children in multilingual environments routinely have the opportunity to track who speaks which language, who understands which content, and who can converse with whom," suggesting that language exposure may help them better comprehend the social aspects of conversation. In particular, the team argues, it might help kids learn an important skill, albeit one that's difficult to master: taking the perspectives of the people they're listening to.

Much of the academic debate over the consequences of multilingualism centers on executive control, the mental capacity to manage cognitive processes—for example, the ability to read a book while ignoring others' conversations in a noisy coffee shop, or the skill to manage many different concerns while making a political decision.

Both bilinguals and, remarkably, monolinguals with foreign-language experience scored about 75 percent on ambiguous instructions, compared to plain old monolinguals' 50 percent.

To test their hypothesis, Fan and her colleagues recruited 72 four- to six-year-old children, who, in equal numbers, spoke one language, spoke two languages, or spoke one language but regularly heard people speaking other languages. Each of those kids sat in front of a four-by-four grid of cubby holes containing objects such as a toy car or a spoon while a director gave instructions on how to move objects around the grid.

While kids could see the contents of each cubby hole, the director could see the contents of only 12 of the 16. That meant that, in some cases, a child would have to take the perspective of the director in order to follow his or her instructions correctly. For example, if there were two small toy cars, one obscured from the director's view, and the instruction was "Can you please move the small car underneath the spoon," a child would need to understand which car the director could see in order to move the correct one to the desired spot, underneath the spoon.

The results were clear: Both bilinguals and, remarkably, monolinguals with foreign-language experience scored about 75 percent on ambiguous instructions, compared to plain old monolinguals' 50 percent. Apparently, kids who'd at least heard more than one language understood more often than not which car the director could see and moved that one, while other children seemed to ignore than information and chose which car to move at random.

"A purely monolingual environment is not common in human societies. We demonstrated that the more prevalent environment, which exposes children to multilingual experiences, may provide important tools for effective communication," the team writes. "If multilingual exposure indeed benefits effective communication, then miscommunication might be reduced through active exposure of young children to varied linguistic environments."

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