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Language and Executive Function

Language and executive function skills are both critical to a child’s development. But did you know they are related to each other in important ways? Language development and executive function (EF) skills have a reciprocal relationship, meaning each relies on the other for optimal growth. EF skills represent a set of cognitive processes that underlie self-control of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They are important predictors of school success.

Below are some examples of how language affects EF skills, and how EF skills, in turn, influence a child’s communication. First, I will explain how being bilingual may help promote children’s executive function skills. Then, I will provide some examples of how talking with your child in the first few years of life can help build children’s EF skills. Lastly, I will provide evidence on how EF skills can help children avoid misleading or incorrect information through communication with others.

Learning a Second Language May Help Children’s EF

Research suggests that EF develops more rapidly in children who are bilingual compared to those who are monolingual1,2. Why might bilingual children have this cognitive benefit? One explanation is that bilingual children need to simultaneously activate both languages in the brain. This dual-language processing requires them to direct their attention to the target language. Therefore, bilingualism might help “train” EF skills as they are repeatedly recruited for language selection. For example, when a child who is speaking in Spanish with her parents sees an English-speaking friend from school, she will need to shift to her other language, suppressing the response in Spanish in order to greet her friend in English.

Since this enhanced selective attention and cognitive flexibility requires repeated practice, the length of time that people spend using two or more languages also matters. For example, one study showed that native Spanish-English bilingual preschoolers outperformed their English-only speaking peers on EF measures, while English speakers enrolled in Spanish immersion kindergarten performed in between the other two groups2. Studies also suggest that the bilingual advantage becomes more apparent as children grow older and obtain more practice in language control3. Thus, the effect of bilingualism on EF may grow stronger as children gain practice in managing both languages.

Speaking to Children to Scaffold Their EF

How can parental language input support children’s executive processing skills? One proven strategy is for parents to talk about explicit conceptual links between objects, people, activities, or functions4. For example, parents can relate the current play activity to a previous experience. When picking up a toy screwdriver, the parent can say, “This is a screwdriver. It is used for putting screws in and taking them out. You saw one in our toolbox last week.” Parents can also help link specific objects with general categories: “Let’s check out all these different tools in this toolbox. A screwdriver, a hammer, and a wrench.”

Aside from explicitly describing the links between activities and objects, parents can also explain the cause and effect of an activity. For example, when playing with toy cars on race tracks, parents can explain to the child, “This car was faster compared to the other one because it raced on the shorter track.” Parents can also help associate feelings and emotion with the cause, such as, “Your little sister is upset because you took the doll out of her hand.”

Research shows that this kind of language input during the early years may have long-lasting effects. Parental verbal scaffolding at 3 years of age is associated with children’s problem solving and language skills at 4 years of age, as well as later EF skills at age 64. It is possible that this type of verbal guidance can provide children with useful language models about how to express complex relations. When children use these models in their self-directed speech (i.e., when children talk to themselves), they may be better able to form concepts, understand rules, make plans and control their own behavior in problem-solving activities.

The Flip Side: EF May Help Children Resist “Fake News”

There is also evidence revealing how EF skills can help children learn from communication with others by filtering out incorrect information they receive in their everyday lives.

Children learn a broad array of knowledge simply from other people telling them things, especially when it would not be easy to see it for yourself, such as the shape of earth and the existence of germs. Although the majority of other people’s testimony is likely to be true and helpful, people sometimes say things that are incorrect due to ignorance or deception. Therefore, it can be risky for young learners to believe everything they are told indiscriminately.

In these situations, EF skills can help children pause and think through the credibility of the information and inhibit the impulse to trust what they are told right away. In one study, for example, 2- and 3-year-old children saw a Goldfish cracker going through a transparent tube and landing in a cup5. Later, an adult falsely claimed that the Goldfish cracker was actually in another cup. Results suggest that the children who were skeptical about the adult’s claims were also the ones who performed better on an inhibitory control task. EF can help children overcome the normally appropriate bias to believe testimony and incorporate available evidence into their thinking and problem-solving processes.

Misleading Testimony Task
This is the apparatus used in the misleading testimony task. For example, the researcher would place a Goldfish cracker in the first tube from the left and children would see it drop into cup 2. But then an adult claimed the cracker was in cup 1. Children with better EF skills were less likely to accept the false claim.

Language Development: Key Takeaways

  • Learning a second language may help children’s EF skills when they practice selecting and switching between two language systems.
  • Parental language that provides explicit conceptual links between objects, activities, or functions also may help improve children’s EF skills.
  • Developing EF skills can help children think critically about misleading or incorrect information through communicative interactions.

 

Citations

1Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Blaye, A., & Poulin-Dubois, D. (2010). Word mapping and executive functioning in young monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of Cognition and Development, 11, 485–508.

2Carlson, S. M., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2008). Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children. Developmental Science, 11, 282–298.

3 Luk, G., De Sa, E., & Bialystok, E. (2011). Is there a relation between onset age of bilingualism and enhancement of cognitive control? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 14, 588–595.

4 Landry, S. H., Miller-Loncar, C. L., Smith, K. E., & Swank, P. R. (2002). The role of early parenting in children’s development of executive processes. Developmental neuropsychology21(1), 15-41.

5 Jaswal, V. K., Pérez‐Edgar, K., Kondrad, R. L., Palmquist, C. M., Cole, C. A., & Cole, C. E. (2014). Can’t stop believing: Inhibitory control and resistance to misleading testimony. Developmental Science17(6), 965-976.

 

About the Author:

Pearl Han Li is currently earning her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development. Her primary research interests include how young children learn from what other people tell them, and the relationship between children’s learning styles and parental and cultural influences. She is also interested in children’s early prosocial behavior and moral development in early childhood. Pearl got her master’s degree in Human Development and Psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016 and graduated from Peking University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Communications.