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Is mere exposure enough? The effects of bilingual environments on infant cognitive development

D'Souza, D., Brady, D., Haensel, J. & D'Souza, H. (2020). Is mere exposure enough? The effects of bilingual environments on infant cognitive development. Royal Society Open Science, 7(2), article number 180191. doi: 10.1098/rsos.180191


Bilinguals purportedly outperform monolinguals in non-verbal tasks of cognitive control (the ‘bilingual advantage'). The most common explanation is that managing two languages during language production constantly draws upon, and thus strengthens, domain-general inhibitory mechanisms (Green 1998 Biling. Lang. Cogn.1, 67–81. (doi:10.1017/S1366728998000133)). However, this theory cannot explain why a bilingual advantage has been found in preverbal infants (Kovacs & Mehler 2009 Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA106, 6556–6560. (doi:10.1073/pnas.0811323106)). An alternative explanation is needed. We propose that exposure to more varied, less predictable (language) environments drive infants to sample more by placing less weight on consolidating familiar information in order to orient sooner to (and explore) new stimuli. To confirm the bilingual advantage in infants and test our proposal, we administered four gaze-contingent eye-tracking tasks to seven- to nine-month-old infants who were being raised in either bilingual (n = 51) or monolingual (n = 51) homes. We could not replicate the finding by Kovacs and Mehler that bilingual but not monolingual infants inhibit learned behaviour (experiment 1). However, we found that infants exposed to bilingual environments do indeed explore more than those exposed to monolingual environments, by potentially disengaging attention faster from one stimulus in order to shift attention to another (experiment 3) and by switching attention more frequently between stimuli (experiment 4). These data suggest that experience-driven adaptations may indeed result in infants exposed to bilingual environments switching attention more frequently than infants exposed to a monolingual environment.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2020 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.
Publisher Keywords: bilingual advantage, cognitive control, inhibitory control, infant development
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
R Medicine > RC Internal medicine > RC0321 Neuroscience. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry
R Medicine > RJ Pediatrics
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
SWORD Depositor:
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Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution International Public License 4.0.

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