An Interview with Ashley Chung-Fat-Yim, M.A. | York University, Toronto
Ashley Chung-Fat-Yim is a PhD Candidate in Developmental Sciences at York University, Department of Psychology in Toronto, Ontario. She works for the Lifespan Cognition and Development Lab, a cognitive neuroscience laboratory in the Department of Psychology at York University directed by Dr. Ellen Bialystok. Their research examines the effect of bilingualism on cognitive and linguistic processing across the lifespan. They use behavioral and neuroimaging methods, including electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to investigate the neural underpinnings of cognition in individuals with diverse language backgrounds and determine the mechanism by which those effects take place. Their studies include children, younger and older adults, patients, and now infants.
LFSF: An infant study from York University is getting momentum in the media [ this article is one example].
You happened to share this study with our community during your recent presentation for LFSF at the SF Bilingual Fair, didn’t you?
AC: Yes, this is indeed the infant study that I presented in my most recent talk. I've attached those slides from my talk as a refresher. I am delighted to see that this study is gaining momentum and the media attention it deserves!
LFSF : Could you briefly explain the process and the findings of this study?
AC: Dr. Ellen Bialystok along with her colleagues at York University, Dr. Scott Adler and graduate student Kyle Comishen, recruited 6-month-old infants who were raised either in a monolingual household, where both parents speak the same language (i.e., English), or a multilingual household, in which both parents were intentionally exposing their infant to more than one language. The task is quite simple. In the pre-switch condition, a cue appears on the screen that predicts the location of a reward (e.g., checkerboard cue predicts reward on the left side, while bullseye cue predicts reward on the right side). After a number of trials, infants from both language groups were able to notice the pattern and correctly anticipate the location of the reward.
But what happens when the cue-reward pattern is switched, such that the checkerboard cue now predicts the reward to be on the right side of the screen, while the bullseye cue predicts the reward to appear on the left side of the screen? Do monolingual and bilingual infants perform the same?
In this post-switch condition, only the infants exposed to a bilingual environment were able to correctly anticipate the location of the reward and made faster reactive eye movements to the reward than infants exposed to monolingual environments. These findings suggest that a bilingual environment can foster greater attentional control to stimuli in the surroundings. What is remarkable about these findings is that these are pre-verbal infants who have not yet begun to actively use or produce language!
This is another example of neuroplasticity and how an intense experience, such as bilingualism, can reshape the brain and attention system.
LFSF : How would you respond to the criticism in the article shared earlier with regards to small sample size?
AC : Although the criticism from the article with regards to small sample size is valid, it is important to mention that the sample from Comishen et al. (2019)'s study is actually quite common and comparable to other infant studies.
In this infant study, a strict criteria was established: for infants to be included in the final sample for analysis, they had to attend and provide a valid response (i.e., anticipation or reactive eye movement) for at least 60% of the trials in both the pre- and post-switch conditions. Therefore, we are ensuring that the infants whose data is included are infants who actually attended and completed the task to the best of their ability.
LFSF : How important is this study in the general debate over the benefits of bilingualism?
AC : This study provides a plausible basis for why we see differences in executive function between monolinguals and bilinguals across the lifespan.
Being exposed to another language appears to modify attention. Specifically, bilingualism aids in the proper allocation and control of attention to stimuli in the environment.
The debate tends to stem from the null effects observed between monolinguals and bilinguals in the young adult population. Most studies examining performance in young adults rely solely on mean reaction times and tend to use relatively simple tasks that lack the sensitivity to capture the complex nature of executive function. These undergraduate students are operating at their peak efficiency. However, unlike behavioral studies, neuroimaging studies are more robust in discriminating between monolingual and bilingual brains. The general pattern of results suggest that bilinguals draw upon fewer and more distinct neural resources than monolinguals when performing an executive function task.
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