MULTILINGUALS ARE BETTER AT MULTITASKING
Multilingualsare better at Multitasking
On a daily basis, human beings use language to communicate thoughtsand feelings, understand the world around them, identify with theirculture, as well as to connect with others. Most people live in arich linguistic environment with more than one language. In fact,nearly half of the global population is made up of multilingualindividuals, with an ever-increasing number of others in the processof becoming multilingual (Edwards, 2015).
Therefore, aconsiderable number of people tend to continue living in a sustainedand unique situation involving the use of one or more language withthe same expertise. Multilingual individuals are loosely defined aspeople who are conversant in two or more languages as a result ofprolonged contact with both linguistic environments. It also refersto a person’s capacity to use multiple languages in socialcommunication. Those who are exposed to two different nativelanguages from their parents when growing up, become multilingualautomatically since such individuals tend to be knowledgeable in thetwo languages. However, a person may also become a multilingual bylearning another foreign language. However, the definition ofmultilingual does not have an exact degree or manner to which anindividual can use several languages.
Research reveals that both languages in multilingual individuals arecontinually active, notwithstanding the fact that the environment maysupport only one (Kaplan, 2015). Consequently, it implies that unlikemonolinguals, multilingual people tend to have a cognitive mechanismfor controlling the attention directed to the two jointly activatedsystems. Such a cognitive mechanism selects and appropriately directsattention to the correct context so that there is no interferencefrom the undesired language. Such a cognitive function is known asmultitasking or switching from one task to another concurrently. Thecognitive system that is generally accredited with this purpose isknown as executive functioning. According to Gupta and Rajaram(2012), executive functioning designates three core cognitivecomponents responsible for multitasking and switching tasks.Therefore, executive functioning can be perceived to perform threeprimary roles in the multilingual brain, namely: monitoring andmindset shifting, updating the working memory, and inhibition andselective attention. Research shows that bilingual brain has bettertask switching and attention capacities compared to the monolingualbrain due to its ability to inhibit one language and use the other.According to European Commission survey, 56 percent of participantsreported that they would speak another language rather than theirfirst language (Kaplan, 2015). In some countries, such asLuxembourgers and Latvians, 99 percent and 95 percent respectivelyare bilingual or multilingual. In the United States, one-fifth of thepopulation can speak more than one language, despite it identified asa monolingual country (Holmes, 2016). In the recent decades,researchers have conducted several studies to investigate theconnection between multilingual and multitasking.
Research regarding multilingualism and multitasking has beenaddressed both in the research and in literature worldwide. Thesetopics have increasingly interested several researchers over the lastdecades. Just by typing the word multilingualism or multitasking inthe search engine on the internet, it is possible to reach thousandsof studies about them. The term multitasking has two differentdefinitions. It is the simultaneous execution of several tasks orprograms by one computer processer. It also refers to simultaneouslyhandling more than one task by a single person (Grant, Dennis, andLi, 2014). For the purpose of this paper, the second definitionapplies while the first is discarded. Multitasking is largelydependent on the executive functioning of the brain. The multilingualindividual who continuously experience being exposed to at least twolanguages, and restraining one language whenever the other isactivated, boosts the executive functioning in other domains. Studiesindicate that the issue of multilingual being better at multitaskingas a divided issue, with researchers having varying opinions. Variousexperiments have been conducted in this field to examine the exposureto multilingualism from birth, its effects on multitasking comparedto that of monolingual people. In addition, studies have beenconducted to investigate bilingualism and executive functioning usingparadigms to test multitasking. There is much literature to examinethe language processing and switching that involves multitaskingsituations. Multilingual construct contextually driven speech plansfor speech production. While resolving competition and monitoringanother language, they can easily shift between the languages.
Spitzer (2016) claims that the ability to inhibit a language and useanother gives a bilingual brain capabilities of task switching.Research shows that when a bilingual person hears a word the soundsreach the ear in a sequential order. Immediately, the brain systemstarts to guess it by activating words that match the signal. In anexperiment conducted to test multitasking by Eisenchlas, Schalley,Guillemin (2015), it was established that multilingual childrendemonstrated a significantly higher performance in combined tasksthan their monolingual counterparts did. According to Eisenchlas andhis colleagues, such results suggest that combined duties thatrequire one to pay attention to two competing tasks happening at thesame time are easier for multilingual individuals since they tend tofunction in a continuous state of linguistic multitasking.
Holmes (2016) asserts that the relative ease of switching between twocompeting parallel tasks relies on the relative difficulty of the twotasks. Notably, it is much easier to change from an easy task into adifficult task as opposed to switching from a difficult task into aneasy task. This is because performing a complicated task oftenrequires virtually less inhibition of the easier undertakings. Incontrast, performing an easier task will necessitate a lot ofinhibition of the difficult task in order to avoid interference likemonolinguals multilingual persons may develop an increased abilityto defy such obstruction from the previous tasks whenever they switchto a new task. The relative ease of switching tasks is an excellentpointer to an individual’s ability to execute multiple tasksconcurrently.
Research carried out supports the idea that multilingual are betterat multitasking. Poarch and Bialystok (2015) asserts thatmultilingualism is a model of linguistic multitasking. They arguethat the experiences of bilingual and multilingual individualsenhance the processes of executive function that are vital formultitasking performances. For this reason, they hypothesize thatmultilingual are better at multitasking compared to monolinguals. Inorder to provide empirical evidence for their argument, Poarch andBialystok (2015) conducted an experiment that involved two hundredand three children aged between eight and thirteen years old. Amongthem, thirty-nine were trilingual, sixty were fully bilingual,forty-four were partially bilinguals, and sixty were monolinguals.All the respondents carried out the Raven’s colored progressivematrices test, the Peabody picture vocabulary test, and a modifiedflanker task. The result showed that all children performed the samein the nonverbal intelligence and English vocabulary. However,bilinguals and trilingual did better than monolinguals. Theresearchers explain that bilingual were advantaged because of theexecutive function of their brain that controlled attention thus,making them better in linguistic multitasking.
Research indicates multilingual outperform monolinguals in mentalabilities such as focusing on significant information while editingout the irrelevant ones (Engel, 2014). The skills give them capacityto prioritize tasks, as well as work on multiple dutiessimultaneously. Researchers have conducted switching task experimentsto gauge executive functioning such as the ability to plan,strategize, organize, and pay attention. Meuter and Allport did anexperiment 1990 whereby the respondents were required to performsimple tasks of switching back and forth between primary andsecondary languages and identify numbers and shapes (Vega-Mendoza et.al., 2015). They found out that they were faster with their firstlanguage, but as within time, they slowed down. In anotherexperiment, multilingual and monolingual young adults were asked topress computer keys while viewing a series of images. They were thenrequested to switch images to color, and this time, press anothercategories of keys. The bilinguals were found to be faster at makingthe change, unlike the monolinguals. Recent studies show thatbilingualism improves the ability of the brain to multitask. They candirect their attention to other task-relevant information and upholdit regardless of adverse interference.
Both multilingual and multitaskers are important in the modern life.Multiple events occur simultaneously, and they require an individualto work on the immediately and concurrently. In some cases,multitasking appears so natural such that one does not realize. Forinstance, cooking while reading the recipe, talking while walking,taking notes and listening to the lecturer, among many more tasks.The debate whether multilingual individuals are better atmultitasking and switching from one task to other remains. Theexperience of being proficient in more than one language has asubstantial impact on linguistic and various cognitive abilities.Analysis of both domains indicates that this effect may translateinto merits and demerits depending on the situational context and thetask handled by multilingual individuals. However, this research hasdifferentiated that multilingual speakers have superior cognitivecontrol in selective attention and inhibition of interfering agents.
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Eisenchlas, S. A., Schalley, A. C., & Guillemin, D. (2015).Multilingualism and literacy: attitudes and policies. InternationalJournal of Multilingualism, 12(2), 151-161.
Engel de Abreu, P. (2014). Multilingualism and Specific LanguageImpairment.
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