About this Research Topic
The claim that multi-language acquisition drives advantages in ‘executive function’ is currently an issue of vigorous debate in academic literature. Critics argue that evidence for this advantage has been confounded by unsound or questionable methodological practices, with some investigators abandoning research in this area altogether, indicating either that there is no bilingual advantage or that it is impossible to capture and therefore rule out alternative explanations for group differences. Over the past decade, and against this backdrop, theory has developed from a relatively narrow focus on inhibitory control to incorporate theory of mind, rule-based learning, reactive and proactive control, visuo-spatial memory, and control of verbal interference in speech comprehension. Most recently, authors have claimed that the process of becoming bilingual may also impact on metacognitive abilities.
The fundamental issue is whether the limited capacity and goal-directed selectivity of our executive system can somehow be enhanced or otherwise profit from the continuous, intense competition associated with communicating in multilingual environments. However, although this issue has received much attention in academic literature, the question of which cognitive mechanisms are most influenced by the enhanced competition associated with multilingual contexts remains unresolved.
Therefore, rather than dismissing this important topic, this Research Topic advocates a more systematic approach in which the effects of multi-linguistic experience are assessed and interpreted across well-defined stages of cognitive development. We encourage a broad, developmentally informed approach to plotting the trajectory of interactions between multi-language learning and cognitive development, using a convergence of neuroimaging and behavioral methods, across the whole lifespan.
Moreover, we suggest that the current theoretical framing of the bilingual advantage is simplistic, and this issue may limit attempts to identify specific mechanisms most likely to be modulated by multilingual experience. For example, there is a tendency in academic literature to treat ‘executive function’ as an essentially unitary fronto-parietal system recruited in response to all manner of cognitive demand, yet performance across so called ‘executive function’ tasks is highly variable and intercorrelations are sometimes low. It may be the case that some ‘higher level’ mechanisms of 'executive function' remain relatively unaffected, while others are more sensitive to multilingual experience – and that there may be disadvantages as well as advantages, which themselves may be sensitive to factors such as age. In our view, there is an urgent need to take a more fine-grained approach to this issue, so that the strength and direction of changes in diverse cognitive abilities associated with multi-language acquisition can be better understood.
This Research Topic will bring together psychologists and neuroscientists who actively research whether, how, and the extent to which multilanguage acquisition promotes enhanced cognition or protects against age-related cognitive or neurological deterioration. We welcome submissions from groups representing the broad range of perspectives on this debate, and employing diverse methods, in order to drive theoretical progress well beyond the highly simplistic issue of whether the bilingual cognitive advantage is real or spurious. Although we favour reports of new empirical research findings, critical reviews of theory and method are also welcome.
Keywords: Bilingual Advantage, Executive Function, Cognitive Control, Cognitive Development, Cognitive Ageing
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