L2↑ ≠ EF↑ ≠ KY↑

Adam Lebowitz

Recently, an article in the New York Times by psychologist Katherine Kinzler described test results that suggest a multilingual environment enhances developing social skills in toddlers (Kinzler, 2016). This study was premised on the idea of a “bilingual advantage” in cognitive functioning where speakers of more than one language have enhanced Executive Function (EF). This was first introduced about ten years ago (Bialystok, Craik, & Klein, 2004) and has also been discussed in recent domestic L2 research literature (Kutsuki, 2014). 

Executive Function is a psychological term defined as “integrative cognitive processes that determine goal-directed and purposeful behavior and are superordinate in the orderly execution of daily life functions” (Cicerone et al., 2000, p. 1605). One key feature is “self-regulation,” and associated cognitive actions include planning and organizing behavior in sequence, monitoring and adapting behavior, and deferring gratification (Barkley, 1997). This implies EF plays a role in social functioning; in fact, autism is considered a disorder marked by EF deficits (Jurado & Rosselli, 2007).

It’s an appealing proposition: L2 acquisition not only makes you more “with it” cognitively, multilingual exposure will increase your capacity to “sense vibes” in an interpersonal sense. In contemporary Nihongo, this is known as “KY” or kûki wo yomu (reading the air). But is it true? Kinzler operationalized social skills as the ability to understand a “speaker’s intended meaning.” This seems a rather novel concept that would be difficult to validate. In addition, her research group did not find a positive association between EF and KY. More problematic, however, is the initial premise of L2 benefiting EF. Replicating the study designs of Bialystok and others, Paap and Greenberg rigorously controlled for confounding variables such as socio-economic status (Paap & Greenberg, 2013). Furthermore, since current understanding of EF implies an aggregation of different functions, associations between functions were tested for convergent validity. Through this methodology, the authors found no coherent evidence for bilingual advantage. 

The takeaway here is the appeal of L2 as a tool for new employment and social opportunities that in and of itself, however, may not make people socially or cognitively “smarter.” This should not only inform student evaluation, but also how native and non-native English speakers evaluate each other.



Barkley, R. A. (1997). Behavioral inhibition, sustained attention, and executive functions: Constructing a unifying theory of ADHD. Psychological Bulletin, 121(1), 65-94. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.121.1.65

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Klein, R. (2004). Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon Task. Psychology and Aging, 19(2), 290-303. doi:10.1037/0882-7974.19.2.290

Cicerone, K. D., Dahlberg, C., Kalmar, K., Langenbahn, D. M., Malec, J. F., Bergquist, T. F., … Morse, P. A. (2000). Evidence-based cognitive rehabilitation: Recommendations for clinical practice. Arch Phys Med Rehabil, 81, 1596-1615. doi:10.1053/apmr.2000.19240

Jurado, M. B., & Rosselli, M. (2007). The elusive nature of executive functions: A review of our current understanding. Neuropsycho Rev, 17, 213-233. doi:10.1007/s11065-007-9040-z

Kinzler, K. (2016). The superior social skills of bilinguals. The New York Times Sunday Review. Retrieved from <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/opinion/sunday/the-superior-social-ski...

Kutsuki, A. (2014). Being raised bilingually: The cognitive effects of living with two languages (in Japanese). Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Kobe Shoin, (17), 47-65.

Paap, K. R., & Greenberg, Z. I. (2013). There is no coherent evidence for a bilingual advantage in executive processing. Cognitive Psychology, 66, 232-258. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2012.12.002