Research Briefs—Jan. 27, 2015

Is being bilingual better?

A 2011 census of Canada revealed Montreal to have the highest rate of bilinguals in the country. While this figure may not come as a surprise to many, it does make Montreal the ideal candidate for demonstrating the ‘bilingual advantage.’  

Evidence has shown that raising a child in a multilingual environment endows the developing brain with distinct advantages in executive function—that is, the ability to manage higher-level cognition including problem solving, task switching, planning, and execution.

Dr. Angela de Bruin, raised speaking Dutch and English, attended the University of Edinburgh to find out more about the relationship between bilingualism and cognition. She began her first study fully expecting to document the ways bilingualism confers success.

“I had the impression that there’s a really strong effect of bilingualism on executive function,” de Bruin predicted.

However, the data showed no difference between monolingual and bilingual performance on three out of four of the cognitive tests she conducted.

She decided to investigate the claims further. She examined abstracts from 169 conferences, looking for those involving bilingualism and executive control. De Bruin wanted to look for publication bias; maybe there was a preference toward publishing positive results­—ones that showed an advantage of bilingualism.

Sure enough, about half of the findings presented at conferences showed complete or partial support, while the other half provided complete or partial opposition for the bilingual advantage. Yet, of the studies that were subsequently published, 68 per cent of the studies demonstrating a bilingual edge were published while only 29 per cent of the studies showing no difference or a monolingual advantage found their way into publication. De Bruin published her findings in Psychological Science last month under the title “Cognitive Advantage in Bilingualism: An Example of Publication Bias?”

“I’m definitely not saying there’s no bilingual advantage,” de Bruin explained.

De Bruin thinks we may be looking in the wrong places. Instead of conferring an advantage during the developmental stage of life, de Bruin believes that the data is more compelling when showing a bilingual advantage toward the end of life. Data has shown that bilinguals are, on average, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4.3 years later than monolinguals. She posits that bilingualism may help protect against cognitive decline. For this reason, de Bruin argues, the bilingual advantage may still ring true.

Music knows no bounds

Hauke Egermann and Stephen McAdams from McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology are learning that the language of music is universal. In a recently published article in Frontiers of Psychology, Egermann et al. studied psychophysiological responses to music between two groups—Montrealers and Menbenzé Congolese pygmies—who had no previous knowledge of the other groups’ music. 

Both experimental groups listened to 19 musical clips—11 Western and eight Pygmy pieces. They were then asked to choose between emoticons to explain their moods by asking whether they felt calm (closed-eyes emoticon) or excited (open-eyes). The researchers also monitored the participants’ heart rate, breathing rate, and other psychophysiological indicators.

As it turns out, emotional responses to music are remarkably similar across cultural lines. The main difference, the study notes, is that Canadian listeners felt a wider array of emotions than Pygmy listeners. 

The explanation is most likely cultural. 

“In general, music is used in this culture to evacuate all negative emotions,” said Nathalie Fernado, a contributing researcher from the Université de Montreal.

“People have been trying to figure out […] whether the way we react to music is based on the culture that we come from or on some universal features of the music itself,” McAdams explained. “Now we know that it is actually a bit of both.”

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