Glasgow & West Scotland

Bilingual children 'better at problem-solving skills'

Child at school
Children who spoke Gaelic were successful at tasks set for them

Bilingual children outperform children who speak only one language in problem-solving skills and creative thinking, according to a new study.

Researchers set lingual, arithmetical and physical tasks for 121 children, aged about nine, in Scotland and Sardinia, Italy.

They found that the 62 bilingual children were "significantly more successful in the tasks set for them".

The study has been published in the International Journal of Bilingualism.

The Glasgow-based children spoke English and Gaelic, or English only, while the Sardinian cohort spoke either Italian only, or Italian and Sardinian.

Gaelic 'advantage'

They were asked to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, to repeat orally a series of numbers, to give clear definitions of words and to resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems.

The tasks were all set in English or Italian.

Researchers found that the bilingual children were "significantly more successful in the tasks set for them".

They observed that the Gaelic-speaking children were more successful than the Sardinian speakers.

The differences were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking.

The study found that the further advantage for Gaelic-speaking children may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and its extensive literature.

Sardinian is not widely taught in schools on the Italian island and has a largely oral tradition, which means there is currently no standardised form of the language.

The study was conducted by Strathclyde University with colleagues from the University of Cagliari in Sardinia.

It was led by Dr Fraser Lauchlan, an honorary lecturer at Strathclyde's school of psychological sciences.

He said: "Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

'Demonstrable benefits'

"Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively.

"We also assessed the children's vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils."

Dr Lauchlan said that the bilingual children were seen to have "an aptitude for selective attention" and an ability to filter and focus on information which is important.

It is thought that this may come from the "code-switching" of thinking in two different languages.

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