Harvard professor to study the effects of billingualism on learning

Congratulations to Gigi Luk of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is among the new class of postdoctoral fellows recently selected by the National Academy of Education. She will receive $55,000 for an academic year of research. Luk studies how speaking more than one language improves brain function in other areas such as attention and executive control in typically developing children. She is now interested in how billingualism affects children with learning disabilities. Here’s the National Academy of Education’s description of her research goals:

Bilingualism and Reading Difficulty: An Interaction Between Life Experience and Reading Development
Being bilingual may confer cognitive advantages beyond communicative purposes. Research has shown bilinguals outperform monolingual peers on tasks assessing executive functions, a set of skills critical for efficient goal-oriented control of attention and other cognitive resources. Simultaneously, bilingual toddlers and elementary school children’s single language proficiency is often found to be inferior to their monolingual peers. These seemingly contradictory consequences of bilingual experience have been studied extensively in typically developing children. However, it is unclear whether the cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism also apply to atypically developing populations, particularly those who have reading difficulty. If the experience of managing two languages enhances executive functions skills, then bilinguals with reading difficulty may enjoy compensatory cognitive benefits in processes relating to reading from their bilingual experience. Alternatively, bilingualism may be a cognitive burden and further hinder reading development for struggling readers.

Previous research has examined the roles of Spanish and English representations in short-term memory, visual-spatial and language memory in English Language Learners who speak Spanish as the first language and are learning English as a second language. However, little education research has been conducted on bilingual children who are functional bilinguals and speak a non-Spanish language in addition to English. To complement prior research focusing on English Language Learners, this project will involve bilingual children who are fluent in two alphabetic languages and report using both languages on a daily basis, similar to those who have been reported to show cognitive advantages in previous research.