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No evidence for a bilingual executive function advantage in the nationally representative ABCD study

Abstract

Learning a second language in childhood is inherently advantageous for communication. However, parents, educators and scientists have been interested in determining whether there are additional cognitive advantages. One of the most exciting yet controversial1 findings about bilinguals is a reported advantage for executive function. That is, several studies suggest that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals on tasks assessing cognitive abilities that are central to the voluntary control of thoughts and behaviours—the so-called ‘executive functions’ (for example, attention, inhibitory control, task switching and resolving conflict). Although a number of small-2,3,4 and large-sample5,6 studies have reported a bilingual executive function advantage (see refs. 7,8,9 for a review), there have been several failures to replicate these findings10,11,12,13,14,15, and recent meta-analyses have called into question the reliability of the original empirical claims8,9. Here we show, in a very large, demographically representative sample (n = 4,524) of 9- to 10-year-olds across the United States, that there is little evidence for a bilingual advantage for inhibitory control, attention and task switching, or cognitive flexibility, which are key aspects of executive function. We also replicate previously reported disadvantages in English vocabulary in bilinguals7,16,17. However, these English vocabulary differences are substantially mitigated when we account for individual differences in socioeconomic status or intelligence. In summary, notwithstanding the inherently positive benefits of learning a second language in childhood18, we found little evidence that it engenders additional benefits to executive function development.

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Data availability

The data are from the ABCD Study Curated Annual Release 1.0 and are available on request from the NIMH Data Archive (https://data-archive.nimh.nih.gov/abcd).

Code availability

All software used in the present analysis is open source from the Comprehensive R Archive Network (version 3.5.0; ref. 69). The R code to replicate the analysis is available at https://github.com/anthonystevendick/bilingual_abcd.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the families and children who participated, and continue to participate, in the ABCD study, as well as staff at the study sites, Data Analysis and Informatics Core (DAIC), and site personnel involved in data collection and curating the data release. We also thank A. Counsell for discussion on the equivalence testing approach and for sharing R code. This study was supported by an NIH/NIDA U01DA041156 ABCD study grant. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

A.S.D. originally conceived the study, analysed the data and wrote the draft manuscript. A.S.D. and W.K.T. designed the analysis. N.L.G., S.M.P., S.W.H., M.T.S., M.C.R., A.R.L. and R.G. contributed to the conception, discussion, data collection, curation of the data and write-up of the study. All authors reviewed and approved the manuscript.

Correspondence to Anthony Steven Dick.

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Fig. 1: Results of the tests of equivalence for the standardized regression slope β.
Fig. 2: Histograms representing the frequency of P values for n = 30 of 5,000 bootstrap replicates, for OLS regressions with no covariates.