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Learning a Second Language can Improve a Child's Memory

Update Date: Aug 28, 2012 11:08 AM EDT

In a study forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientist Pascale Engel de Abreu of the University of Luxembourg and colleagues examine the effects of speaking two languages on the executive functioning of low-income children.

While experts have noted that learning an instrument can have altruistic and positive cognitive affects on children, and while previous research has shown that being bilingual enhances executive functioning in middle-class children, researchers are curious as to how it affects lower income populations.

"Low-income children represent a vulnerable population," says Engel de Abreu. "Studying cognitive processes in this population is of great societal importance and represents a significant advancement in our understanding of childhood development."

Specifically, being bilingual has a positive influence on the ability to direct and focus attention, and experts hypothesize that in children living in low-income households, learning a second language can have the added effect of encoding and structuring knowledge in memory.

A total of 80 second graders from low-income families participated in the study from Northern Portugal and Luxembourg, half of whom only spoke Portuguese and the other spoke Luxembourgish and Portuguese.

After completing two tasked designed to gauge the participant's memories, researchers found that though the bilingual children knew fewer words than their monolingual peers, and did not show an advantage for memorization tasks, they performed better than their monolingual children, just as the researchers hypothesized.

"This is the first study to show that, although they may face linguistic challenges, minority bilingual children from low-income families demonstrate important strengths in other cognitive domains," says Engel de Abreu.

Researchers believe that such findings can be used to reduce the achievement gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds:

Engel de Abreu notes, "Teaching a foreign language does not involve costly equipment, it widens children's linguistic and cultural horizons, and it fosters the healthy development of executive control."

Experts stress that instead of learning a second language in secondary school or high school as is the requirement in the United States, middle and elementary schools, specifically public, should offer second language courses, as their young minds will be able to retain the information learned and learning it will give them an academic advantage equal to their private school peers.

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