Is foreign language learning related to cognitive functioning?

Reference: Javan, S. S., & Ghonsooly, B. (2018). Learning a foreign language: A new path to enhancement of cognitive functions. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 47(1), 125-138.

Guest post by Gabrielle Norcross

When I was going through school and learning Spanish to meet course requirements, I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed by all I had to keep in mind. Learning a foriegn language requires remembering lots of vocabulary, switching between different tenses, and keeping multiple grammatical rules in mind. This got me thinking: Is learning a foreign language related to a person’s cognitive abilities? Researchers Sara Javan and Behzad Ghonsooly in Iran investigated this question. 

A decent amount of research has investigated natural bilingualism, which refers to when a person learns a second language out of necessity and in context of the world around them. For example, natural bilingualism occurs when a child grows up in a Spanish-speaking household, but lives in an English-speaking culture. These children learn English as they go about their day-to-day life because they have to learn it to get by in society. 

However, less research has focused on acquired bilingualism, which refers to when a person learns a second language in an academic setting and without contextual practice. For example, acquired bilingualism occurs when an English-speaking student studies Spanish in their school for many years.

Prior research has found that people who are natural bilinguals perform better on measures of executive function compared to people who only speak one language (i.e., monolinguals). Executive functions are mental processes that manage the information in your brain to achieve tasks. Perhaps this finding isn’t surprising to you – after all, it takes a lot of mental effort to learn a foreign language without formal instruction. But what about acquired bilinguals – do they also have higher executive functioning? That is, does learning a second language in a natural context relate to mental processes in a similar way as learning a language through instruction does?

To investigate this question, the researchers compared executive functioning for Iranians who study English as a foreign language at a basic versus an advanced level. To measure executive function, the researchers assessed working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Working memory is the ability to hold multiple things in your memory for a short amount of time. For example, when you’re trying to remember your shopping list as you peruse the aisles of the grocery store, you are relying on your working memory. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to quickly switch the way you think from one way to another, such as adjusting your driving speed as you ride through areas with different speed limits. Inhibitory control is the ability to choose to not focus on things that are not relevant at the time. For example, students studying for an exam rely on their inhibitory control to block out irrelevant, distracting information, such as what TV show they want to watch later.


The researchers recruited 120 school-aged Iranian females to complete tasks that measured their executive functioning. Half of the participants were considered to be studying English at an advanced level (i.e., having studied English for at least six years in a private institution), while the other half were considered to be studying English at a basic level (i.e., completed a basic English program at school). All of these participants completed five tasks (described in more detail below): a background questionnaire, Raven’s progressive matrices, a digit span task, the Wisconsin card sorting task, and the Stroop task. All of these tasks were completed in the participants’ native language (i.e., Persian). 

One of the tasks that participants completed was a background questionnaire that let the researchers get background information about the participants, including information like education levels and socioeconomic status. This way, the researchers could make sure these factors weren’t influencing any relationship they found between executive function and language learning. 

Participants also completed the Raven’s Progressive Matrices task to measure their non-verbal intelligence. Each participant was shown a series of matrices with a change in each one. Then, they chose from a selection of potential matrices that would follow the pattern of change. Because differences in intelligence could also drive differences in executive functioning, this measure was included to ensure that the two language groups did not differ in their levels of intelligence (they didn’t).

Examples of the executive function tasks that participants completed during the study.

Measuring Executive Functioning

Participants then completed the digit span task to measure their working memory. The participants were shown or heard a string of numbers, and then attempted to recite the string of numbers back as accurately as possible either forwards or backwards. The researchers computed how fast and accurate participants were at this task.

The Wisconsin card sorting task was used to measure cognitive flexibility. On each trial, participants were presented with four different cards and a new card to sort based on an undefined rule (e.g., “yellow objects”). They would be told whether they were correct and the task would continue. Critically, the rules could change at any point without the participants’ knowledge. The researchers measured how many errors the participants made during the card sorting (fewer errors meant better cognitive flexibility).

The Stroop task was used to measure inhibitory control. Participants had to say the font color of words presented to them. In some trials, the font color of the word was the same as the word presented (e.g., the word “blue” presented in blue font – a “congruent” trial), and for other trials, the font color of the word was different from the word presented (e.g., the word “blue” presented in a red font – an “incongruent” trial). The researchers compared how fast and accurate participants were for congruent versus incongruent trials.

So, do acquired bilinguals have higher executive functioning? 

The results of this study were mixed: The researchers found no difference in people’s inhibitory control based on their skill in a second language. However, the advanced students of English had better working memory and cognitive flexibility than the beginner students.

As most of the previous literature has focused on natural bilingualism, this research is novel in showing a connection between acquired language learning and particular aspects of executive functioning (i.e., working memory and cognitive flexibility). People who have a further mastery of another language show differences in cognitive functioning compared to those who do not have that mastery. Future research should continue to investigate acquired bilingualism and cognitive functioning. One question that remains is whether or not people who already had these cognitive abilities are better at language learning, or if learning language increases a person’s cognitive abilities. But given all the mental juggling that language learning requires, I wouldn’t be surprised if both were true! 

Gabrielle is a senior at Kent State University studying psychology as well as criminology and justice studies. Outside of school, Gabrielle is a barista and loves making connections with people through her job. After graduation, she aspires to go to graduate school and study mental health counseling.