Bilingualism, Attention, and the Simon Effect 

If you’re considering bringing your child to our institution or if your child is involved in our institution, you are likely aware of the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits that come with being bilingual. This is the first of many blog posts that will attempt to further illustrate these benefits and might be able to express some advantages of bilingualism and multilingualism that you may not have considered! 

One consideration when deciding to raise a child as multilingual ought to be if this exposure to multiple languages helps the learner in his or her academic career. Though this is a pretty broad question, one can examine the multitude of factors associated with high academic performance and look into research about the correlation between being multilingual and those various aspects of academic success. Two important relationships to consider are multilingualism’s relationship with attention and multilingualism’s relationship with self control. Children who struggle to focus in the classroom may have a more difficult time completing their academic tasks. Additionally, children who lack self control are more likely to engage in behaviors that distract both the child and his or her peers. 

This is something parents and teachers alike want to avoid: but how? Research on multilingual children may provide us with a tool for our tool box. According to research by Poarch and van Hell (2012), multilingual children have an advantage to monolingual children in their performance of the Simon Task. If you’re like me, you may have not heard of the Simon Task before. Here’s a brief explanation of what the task entails: 

A child is placed in front of the computer. Two keys on the keyboard are designated as either the left side key or the right side key. Words are flashed onto the screen and the child selects whether the word has appeared on the left side or the right side of the screen by using to predetermined keys. The time it takes for the child to respond as well as if they responded correctly, incorrectly, or if the session timed out are recorded. 

The task involves a particularly difficult aspect where the word “left” appears on the right side of the screen and vice versa. Oftentimes, if one sees the word “left”, they will select the left side key even if the word appears on the right side. This is an expression of a lack of attention to detail and/or an issue with inhibitory control referred to as the “Simon Effect” or the “stimulus-response compatibility effect”. Interestingly, the study reported that the multilingual learners had benefited from the, “Simon effect advantage”. This advantage is one seen in other research of multilingual individuals that has found that they perform much better at this task than their monolingual counterparts. The research also states that, “bilinguals and trilinguals showing enhanced conflict resolution over monolinguals” (Poarch & van Hell, 2012). 

In this research and others, there is a hypothesis that seeks to explain why multilingual learners perform better at these tasks than monolingual learners. The idea is that the ability to speak and understand more than one language requires more attention to detail. Recall or think to what it was/is like to work with your child on, for example, learning his or her colors. To be new to language and learn that “blue” and “azul” mean the same color would likely create a more broad concept of language in general. Discerning when a color is blue, knowing that the same color is “azul”, and knowing that it isn’t “green”, “verde”, “red”, or “rojo” involves a much more complicated process than if the learner were only tasked with grasping one language. Being able to navigate this process is likely what sets multilingual children apart and ahead. 

Overall, studies support the idea that the children in our program and multilingual children in general possess a better ability to pay attention and exercise self control than monolingual learners. As even the youngest children in our programs listen and sing to music, practice their colors and numbers, and engage socially in both spanish and english, a strong foundation for learning is being established. This has the potential to positively impact their academic performance for the rest of their lives.