Most kids believe that human and animal characteristics are innate – that is, looks, personality and language are intrinsic, inherited, and not something which can change over time. However, learning a second language can help them learn that some characteristics are acquired than inherited, enabling them to see the world in a different way.

Kids who learn a second language early in their lives see the world differently. Image via Online Universities.

A new study from Concordia University suggests that many bilingual kids are able to understand that it’s what one learns, and not what one inherits, that makes his or her personality. Contrary to peers who only know one language, kids who learn a second language or are exposed to it early in their lives believe that it’s experience that makes an individual’s personality.

For this study, Krista Byers-Heinlein and her co-author, Concordia undergraduate student Bianca Garcia, tested a total of 48 monolingual, simultaneous bilingual (learned two languages at once) and sequential bilingual (learned one language and then another) five- and six-year-olds. The kids were told stories about English children adopted by Italians, and then similar stories about ducks raised by dogs. They were then asked if they think the children would speak English or Italian, and if the ducks would quack or bark.

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“We predicted that sequential bilinguals’ own experience of learning language would help them understand that human language is actually learned, but that all children would expect other traits such as animal vocalizations and physical characteristics to be innate,” says Byers-Heinlein, who is also a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development.

The results were actually surprising – the kids new that children adopted by Italians would speak Italian, but they also believed that the ducks raised by dogs would rather bark than quack.

“Both monolinguals and second language learners showed some errors in their thinking, but each group made different kinds of mistakes. Monolinguals were more likely to think that everything is innate, while bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned,” says Byers-Heinlein. “Children’s systematic errors are really interesting to psychologists, because they help us understand the process of development. Our results provide a striking demonstration that everyday experience in one domain — language learning — can alter children’s beliefs about a wide range of domains, reducing children’s essentialist biases.”

Most children are essentialists – that is, they believe that for any entity (be it living or non living), there is a fixed set of unchangeable attributes necessary to its identity and function. They only later start to figure out that personalities and ideas can change.

“Our finding that bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs raises the possibility that early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity,” says Byers-Heinlein.


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