Do multilingual children have better pragmatic skills?

In August of this year, Elise presented the results of MultiCUE’s first study at a conference at the University of Birmingham in England. In this study, we investigated the following question: do multilingual children have better pragmatic skills than monolingual children? In linguistics, we use the term ‘pragmatic skills’ to refer to how well children pay attention to non-linguistic information during a conversation, that is, information beyond what someone says. So these skills are not about understanding words or sentences, but about paying attention to other important information that determines exactly what someone means. For example: where is someone looking or pointing during the conversation? How does someone say something? What tone do they use?

To answer our question, we looked at the results of 29 different studies, which examined whether multilingual children were better at:


  1. understanding figurative or indirect language (for example, understanding that the comment “it’s cold in here” could be a request to someone to close the window)
  2. paying attention to non-verbal information (such as where a speaker looks or points while talking)
  3. being informative (in other words, making sure it is clear to another person who or what you are talking about, so for example saying “Anna said to me…” instead of “she said to me…” if it was not yet clear that you were talking about Anna)

We concluded that, in general, no difference was found between multilingual and monolingual children in these studies. However, we did find a small indication that multilingual children sometimes pay more attention to rather subtle non-verbal cues given by the person they are talking to. For example, multilingual children would sometimes pay attention to conversational details, like where someone is looking as they speak. However, more research is needed on this. Our research has been published in the journal Cognitive Development and can be read here.

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