2020 Undergraduate Research Showcase


The Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Executive Functions and Mathematical Skills

Document Type

Student Presentation

Presentation Date


Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Iryna Babik


Previous research has identified three components of executive function (e.g., working memory, inhibition, and shifting) that are associated with mathematical skills and performance.1 Working memory allows maintaining and manipulating numbers in one’s mind to solve mathematical problems.2 Inhibition control helps suppress irrelevant information and inappropriate strategies to solve a problem. Shifting is essential in multi-step mathematical problems that require switching from one step to another; inadequate working memory and inhibition might negatively affect shifting.1 Bilingual children have shown to outperform monolinguals in executive function skills: working memory, inhibitory control, and shifting. For example, bilingual children were more likely to recognize alternative images in ambiguous pictures (the sign of effective shifting) compared to their monolingual peers.3 Researchers proposed that early exposure to two languages may facilitate the development of inhibition and working memory skills needed for problem-solving, and these behavioral changes might have a biological background in the advanced development of the frontal lobes.3,4 Since executive functions seem to facilitate the acquisition of math skills, and bilingual children often exhibit enhanced executive function skills, we propose that there might be a direct link between bilingualism and math skills that needs further investigation.


  1. Yang, X, Chung, K. K. H., & McBride, C. (2019). Longitudinal contributions of executive function and visual-spatial skills to mathematics learning in young Chinese children. Educational Psychology, 39, 678-704. doi:10.1080/01443410.2018.1546831
  2. Cameron, C. E., Brock, L. L., Murrah, W. M., Bell, L. H., Worsalla, S. L., Grissmer, D., & Morrison, F. J. (2012). Fine motor skills and executive function both contribute to kindergarten achievement. Child Development, 83, 1229-1244. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624-2012.01796.x
  3. Bialystok, E., & Shapero, D. (2005) Ambiguous benefits: the effect of bilingualism on reversing ambiguous figures. Developmental Science, 8, 595-604. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2005.00451.x
  4. Morales, J., Calvo, A., & Bialystok, E. (2013) Working memory development in monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114, 187-202. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2012.09.002

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