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Flexible functional adaptation of selective attention in bilingualism

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Poster B38 in Poster Session B, Tuesday, October 24, 3:30 - 5:15 pm CEST, Espace Vieux-Port

Jacqueline Phelps1, Mirjana Bozic1; 1University of Cambridge

The constant management of competing languages in bilinguals presents a major processing demand for the cognitive system, leading to modifications to many cognitive functions, including selective attention. Yet the exact mechanism of selective attention modulation in bilinguals remains debated. One recent view (Olguin et al., 2019; Phelps et al., 2022) argues that, instead of enhanced attentional capacity, adaptation to the demands of bilingualism reflects flexible adaptation and redistribution of the available finite attentional resources to support optimal behavioural performance under the increased processing demands. This account is rooted in the general concept of functional plasticity and degeneracy (Mason et al., 2015; Navarro-Torres et al., 2021), where biological systems can flexibly adapt to perform comparable function or achieve equivalent performance with different underlying configurations. Here we tested this hypothesis further by investigating how the bilingual processing system responds to very high attentional processing loads that extend beyond the typical demands. If bilingual modulation of selective attention reflects redistribution rather than enhancement, this is expected to tax bilinguals’ performance more strongly relative to monolingual controls when the system is presented with high processing loads. We also tested how this flexible functional adaptation of selective attention in bilingualism might be moulded by development and maturation. To address these questions, 80 monolingual and bilingual children aged 7-12 and 84 monolingual and bilingual adults aged 18-45 took part in a study where they were required to perform auditory and visual attention tasks simultaneously. The auditory task employed a dichotic listening paradigm, where participants listened to a story in one ear, while ignoring a distractor presented in the other ear. The distractor stream was manipulated to create different levels of linguistic and non-linguistic interference. The visual task demanded attending to a pre-specified target image on the screen. Results showed equivalent performance on aspects of the dual attention task (auditory comprehension and visual task accuracy) for monolinguals and bilinguals in both age groups. Reaction times from the visual task however revealed differences between groups, with bilingual children’s responses significantly slower relative to monolingual children in conditions of high processing load, but the bilingual adults’ performance equivalent to their monolingual counterparts. These results are indicative of distribution of the available capacity and task prioritisation in bilingual children relative to monolinguals, with these differences between monolingual and bilingual performance essentially receding by adulthood. This suggests that maturation of the selective attention system enables adaptation to the combined load of second language processing and competing task demands; resulting in flexibly adapted selective attention system capable of optimal processing even under very high processing loads.

Topic Areas: Multilingualism, Language Development/Acquisition

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