Could Learning A Second Language Help Treat Impulsive Behaviors?

A new study is underway at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences which could give a compelling new reason to expand second language learning in schools.


The study, led by psychology graduate student Jose Ceballos in Chantel Prat's lab, will use a combination of behavioral testing and powerful statistical tools in hopes of revealing links between bilingualism, impulsive behaviors, and a mental skill known as "inhibitory control."

"Jose's research exemplifies how an improved understanding of brain functioning can bring together seemingly disparate aspects of the human experience," said Prat, co-director of the Cognition & Cortical Dynamics Laboratory at I-LABS.

The findings could guide the development of new treatments for people suffering from a lack of impulse control, such as people with addictions and ADHD.

Here's how the logic goes:
- Bilinguals have better inhibitory control (part of the "bilingual advantage"), which allows them to tune out irrelevant information and focus on what's most useful, possibly because of the regular mental shifting they need to do as they toggle between languages.
- Meanwhile, low inhibitory control is related to populations of people with increased impulsivity.
- The brain circuitry implicated in both lack of impulse control and the cognitive advantages seen in bilinguals is similar.

So, could learning a second language boost inhibitory control and subsequently decrease impulsive behaviors?

That's the question that Ceballos is beginning to study. And he has a newly awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support the project.

Ceballos talks more about bilingualism, his new project, and its implications below:

Q: You were born in Miami, raised in Spain and Colombia. What was it like to grow up bilingual?

A: Growing up, I spoke Spanish at home with my family and I learned English in a full English immersion school where my teachers where all Canadian and American. It was quite entertaining actually – many of them did not know a single word in Spanish. I’m not sure how they got around town! I still vividly remember my second grade teacher asking me how to say “I want to buy a hot dog” during a fieldtrip. I laughed at him for days.

In retrospect I can say that having learned English at a young age and growing up in Spain for a few years and in Colombia for many more gave me some pretty good metalinguistic awareness. This was the first thing about language that caught my interest.

Q: How'd you decide to study bilingualism?

A: As a kid, I remember finding the difference in communicating “having hunger” to be just endlessly entertaining (ha!), because in English we say we “are hungry” but in Spanish we “have hunger.”

I kept much of this natural fascination for language, both as an abstract communicative system and about how easy it comes to humans, throughout high school. This eventually led me to pursue a degree in Linguistics at the University of Florida (UF).

My interest in the bilingual advantage came later in my undergrad training, when I began to be more and more interested in general cognitive ability. That’s how I came across the work of my awesome graduate mentor, Chantel Prat, and came to work in her lab.

Q. Now you study the "bilingual advantage." What is it and why is it controversial?

A: The million-dollar question! Well, the bilingual advantage is basically the notion that being a bilingual (and I’ll get into what this “being” entails) enhances general cognitive ability. This idea mainly comes from a line of research by Ellen Bialystok, which has demonstrated that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in tasks measuring executive functions (e.g., Flanker task). These findings were initially very well received and incredibly exciting. Decades later, many people have conducted research to understand the specific aspects of this advantage in executive functions, and although many have found evidence in line with this “bilingual advantage,” many have also failed to replicate results that support such notion.

We know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so I’d say these null findings have generated a great deal of research trying to tease out what aspects of being bilingual contribute to the advantage. In the past, many people have simply categorized their participant groups as “bilinguals” and “monolinguals” using a set of arbitrary guidelines (e.g., Acquired both languages before the age of 7, proficiency above X, etc.) and have failed to represent the bilingual experience for what it truly is: a rich and diverse experience that does not work well with the “all bilinguals are created equal” approach.

Q. So, your research project will factor in different "shades" of bilingualism?

A: Yes! This is standard procedure for the work in Chantel's lab, and it is unusual for others in our field to use this approach. We give participants in our studies very detailed language questionnaires to systematically understand the individual differences in the bilingual language experience. And for the new study that I will do with the NSF award, I will use advanced statistical methods to study these individual differences in bilingualism and see how the are linked to cognitive function and impulsivity.

The experiment is basically a battery of questionnaires. We'll measure performance on inhibitory control tasks (9 of them!), language tests (for bilingualism), and a questionnaire on impulsivity. Then we'll use a statistical method called a "confirmatory factor analysis" to reveal relationships between these different behaviors and abilities.

Q. How do impulsive behaviors fit in?

A: Well, some research suggests that impulsive behavior such as those underlying addictions may be (at least partly) rooted in failures in inhibitory control, or the cognitive processes that give rise to the ability to halt irrelevant or distracting information. Part of why I find this relationship so interesting is because the basal ganglia, which are subcortical brain structures that are largely responsible for signal routing to the cortex, are implicated in routing relevant information during bilingual language use, along with addictive behavior and substance abuse when this same cortico-striatal system is atrophied.

Q: Are you looking for participants? Who is eligible, how do they sign up?

A: We are looking for healthy participants, but we are only recruiting through the Psychology Subject Pool (PSP) so we’ll only be accepting students who are also enrolled in some of the more entry-level psychology courses at the University of Washington.

Q: How do you hope the findings from your project will help people?

A: This project has potentially really big implications for pedagogy in the US. Providing added support for this notion of the bilingual advantage, and showing how this may go as far as attenuating impulsive behaviors, may lead to rather straightforward changes that may have really large implications for the general public. Ultimately, we may provide a foundation for the development of linguistic and nonlinguistic brain-targeted training paradigms aimed at enhancing inhibitory control and potentially reducing impulsive behaviors. More broadly and from a basic science perspective, these results will increase our understanding of how language experience shapes cognition and behavior.