Children who are bilingual or exposed regularly to a second language may be more capable of empathy, a new study found.
"Children in multilingual environments routinely have the opportunity to track who speaks which language, who understands which content and who can converse with whom," said Samantha Fan, leader of the research team and a University of Chicago psychology graduate student, according to the Pacific Standard.
This can mean extra cognitive ability to put themselves in the shoes of others and see things from more than one perspective, the study found.
The research team believed the opportunities and skills many children in multilingual environments develop may "help them better comprehend the social aspects of conversation," the PC reported.
The study observed 72 4- to 6-year olds, a third of whom spoke one language, a third who spoke two languages and third who spoke only one language but regularly heard another language spoken around them.
Each child sat in front of a grid of 16 cubby holes containing objects that they were directed to move around by a director who could only see 12 of the 16 squares. Because there was more than one of each of the objects, the children could either move whichever car or spoon they wanted, or could try to infer which one the director wanted moved, based on the objects they could see.
The bilingual children and those monolingual with exposure to another language scored about 75 percent on the more ambiguous instructions, as they considered which objects the director could see. The children who only spoke one language scored 50 percent, choosing to just move any of the objects half the time.
Much of debate that comes over the consequences of being raised in a multilingual environment comes down to "executive control, the mental capacity to manage cognitive processes — for example, the ability to read a book while ignoring others' conversations in a noisy coffee shop, or the skill to manage many different concerns while making a political decision," the PC article said.
Being raised in a multilingual world could mean that the skills used to better focus the brain on more than one task at a time could be how the skill to express empathy is developed, two skills tied into one: focusing effectively on more than one perspective.
"A purely monolingual environment is not common in human societies. We demonstrated that the more prevalent environment, which exposes children to multilingual experiences, may provide important tools for effective communication," the team concluded. "If multilingual exposure indeed benefits effective communication, then miscommunication might be reduced through active exposure of young children to varied linguistic environments."
There have been other studies looking at the positive effects of multilingualism, including the work of Ellen Bialystok, who has found bilingualism to help delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease, as well as help develop more complex cognitive systems.
In a study with 5- and 6-year-olds looking at the way the children processed language, "the bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important," Bialystok told the New York Times.
She discussed that this happens because those who regularly use two languages have to use a part of the brain that goes through the knowledge of both languages and pull out what is more relevant for a given situation. This means they use the executive control system in the brain more often, helping them keep more than one thing in their mind at a time and switch between.