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Bilingual children are strong, creative storytellers, study shows

New research suggests that bilingual children are equally adept as monolingual children when telling stories in both languages

University of Alberta

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IMAGE: Elena Nicoladis, professor in the Department of Psychology, is lead author on a new study exploring storytelling ability in bilingual children. Photo credit: John Ulan view more 

Credit: John Ulan

Bilingual children use as many words as monolingual children when telling a story, and demonstrate high levels of cognitive flexibility, according to new research by University of Alberta scientists.

"We found that the number of words that bilingual children use in their stories is highly correlated with their cognitive flexibility--the ability to switch between thinking about different concepts," said Elena Nicoladis, lead author and professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Science. "This suggests that bilinguals are adept at using the medium of storytelling."

Vocabulary is a strong predictor of school achievement, and so is storytelling. "These results suggest that parents of bilingual children do not need to be concerned about long-term school achievement, said Nicoladis. "In a storytelling context, bilingual kids are able to use this flexibility to convey stories in creative ways."

The research examined a group of French-English bilingual children who have been taught two languages since birth, rather than learning a second language later in life. Results show that bilingual children used just as many words to tell a story in English as monolingual children. Participants also used just as many words in French as they did in English when telling a story.

Previous research has shown that bilingual children score lower than monolingual children on traditional vocabulary tests, meaning this results are changing our understanding of multiple languages and cognition in children.

"The past research is not surprising," added Nicoladis. "Learning a word is related to how much time you spend in each language. For bilingual children, time is split between languages. So, unsurprisingly, they tend to have lower vocabularies in each of their languages. However, this research shows that as a function of storytelling, bilingual children are equally strong as monolingual children."

This research used a new, highly sensitive measure for examining cognitive flexibility, examining a participant's ability to switch between games with different rules, while maintaining accuracy and reaction time. This study builds on previous research examining vocabulary in bilingual children who have learned English as a second language.

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The paper, "How to use a wide variety of words in telling a story with a small vocabulary: cognitive predictors of lexical selection for simultaneous bilingual children," was published in Language, Cognition and Neuroscience (doi: 10.1080/23273798.2019.1678758).

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