Bilingual People May Be Better at Attention Shifting


According to a recent study, people who speak two languages may be better at shifting their attention from one thing to another than those who only speak one.

The study looked at differences between bilingual and monolingual individuals in terms of attentional control and ignoring information that isn’t important at the time, said its authors Grace deMeurisse, a University of Florida Ph.D. candidate studying linguistics, and Edith Kaan, a UF professor in the department of linguistics. For example, if an English- and Spanish-speaking person is speaking in Spanish, both languages are active, but English is on hold although it is always ready to be deployed as needed.

“Our results showed that bilinguals seem to be more efficient at ignoring information that’s irrelevant, rather than suppressing, or inhibiting information. One explanation for this is that bilinguals are constantly switching between two languages and need to shift their attention away from the language not in use,

deMeurisse said.

Cognitive Control in Bilinguals

Numerous studies have looked at the differences between the two groups in broad cognitive mechanisms, which are mental processes that our brains use, such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making.

“The effects of speaking two languages on a person’s cognitive control is often debated. Some of the literature says these differences aren’t so pronounced, but that could be because of the tasks linguists use to research differences between bilinguals and monolinguals,”

she said.

DeMeurisse and Kaan wanted to see if there were any differences between the two groups, so they used a new task in psycholinguistics called the Partial Repetition Cost task to assess the participants’ ability to deal with incoming information and control their attention.

“We found that bilinguals seem to be better at ignoring information that’s irrelevant,”

Kaan said.

Adaptation of Cognitive Traits

Functional monolinguals and bilinguals were divided into two groups of subjects. Functional monolinguals are persons who have had two years or less of classroom foreign language training and utilize exclusively the first language they learnt as a child.

Bilinguals were categorized as people who had learned both their first and second language before the ages of 9 to 12 and were still using both languages. Kaan explained that an individual’s cognitive traits continuously adapt to external factors, and as humans, we have very few traits that remain fixed throughout our lifetime.

“Our cognition is continuously adapting to the situation, so in this case it’s adapting to being bilingual. It doesn’t mean it won’t change, so if you stop using the second language, your cognition may change as well,”

she said.

More Consistent Methodology Needed

The study demonstrates the need for more consistency among the various experiments used to understand differences between those who speak one language and those who speak more than one.

“In the study of bilingualism and cognition, we are redefining the way we talk about differences between bilinguals and monolinguals and searching for more factors to consider and more methods to conduct that research,”

deMeurisse said.

The researchers were also clear that their study was not intended to show that people who speak two or more languages have an advantage over those who only speak one.

“We are not looking for advantages or disadvantages. However, regardless of cognitive differences, learning a second language is always going to be something that can benefit you, whether those benefits are cognitive, social, or environmental. It will never be a negative to be exposed to a second language,”

deMeurisse said.


The effects of bilingual language experience on cognitive control are still debated. A recent proposal is that being bilingual enhances attentional control. This is based on studies showing smaller effects of the nature of the preceding trial on the current trial in bilinguals (Grundy et al., 2017). However, performance on such tasks can also be accounted for by lower-level processes such as the binding and unbinding of stimulus and response features. The current study used a Partial Repetition Cost paradigm to explicitly test whether language experience can affect such processes. Results showed that bi- and monolinguals did not differ in their responses when the stimulus features were task-relevant. However, the bilinguals showed smaller partial repetition costs when the features were task-irrelevant. These findings suggest that language experience does not affect lower-level processes, and supports the view that bilinguals exhibit enhanced attentional disengagement.

  1. DeMeurisse, G., & Kaan, E. (2023). Bilingual attentional control: Evidence from the Partial Repetition Cost paradigm. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1-11. doi:10.1017/S1366728923000731