Bilingualism and social cognitive development: the effect of dual-language acquisition on nonverbal communication

Melanie Elizabeth Ordinario Weil, The College of Wooster


Consistent with Piaget and Vygotsky's theories that recognized a close relationship between language and cognitive development, previous studies have consistently found evidence of accelerated cognitive development among children who have operated daily in two languages since birth. Native bilingual children have outperformed their monolingual peers on a range of nonverbal cognitive tasks, including theory of mind (ToM) and other measures of social cognition, and there is evidence that these advantages are maintained throughout the lifespan. However, the social cognitive aspect of bilingualism has been only briefly explored and limited to child populations. Based on previous research, the present study hypothesized that native bilingual adults would continue to display superior social cognition in relation to monolinguals. Furthermore, the possibility that non-native bilinguals could also experience cognitive benefits was explored. Participants were 59 undergraduates ranging from 18 to 23 years of age who were either monolingual, native bilingual, childhood bilingual (early L2), or bilingual since adolescence (late L2). Participants were measured on their accuracy in recognizing emotion from subtle facial expressions before and after watching a training video. Results showed that native bilinguals had significant advantage over monolinguals and a slight advantage over non-native bilinguals in both the pre-test and post-test. It was concluded that, as a direct result of their language experience, native bilingual adults maintained their childhood advantage in social cognition. Further research should focus on individuals with varying degrees of non-native bilingualism to investigate which aspect of dual-language acquisition enhances cognitive development.