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Characterizing Bilingual Effects on Cognition: The Search for Meaningful Individual Differences.

  • Author(s): Backer, Kristina C;
  • Bortfeld, Heather
  • et al.

A debate over the past decade has focused on the so-called bilingual advantage-the idea that bilingual and multilingual individuals have enhanced domain-general executive functions, relative to monolinguals, due to competition-induced monitoring of both processing and representation from the task-irrelevant language(s). In this commentary, we consider a recent study by Pot, Keijzer, and de Bot (2018), which focused on the relationship between individual differences in language usage and performance on an executive function task among multilingual older adults. We discuss their approach and findings in light of a more general movement towards embracing complexity in this domain of research, including individuals' sociocultural context and position in the lifespan. The field increasingly considers interactions between bilingualism/multilingualism and cognition, employing measures of language use well beyond the early dichotomous perspectives on language background. Moreover, new measures of bilingualism and analytical approaches are helping researchers interrogate the complexities of specific processing issues. Indeed, our review of the bilingualism/multilingualism literature confirms the increased appreciation researchers have for the range of factors-beyond whether someone speaks one, two, or more languages-that impact specific cognitive processes. Here, we highlight some of the most salient of these, and incorporate suggestions for a way forward that likewise encompasses neural perspectives on the topic.

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