Over-reliance on English hinders

Several studies report a ‘bilingual advantage’ for cognitive control: the ability to plan, focus, and execute a wide array of tasks is better among bilinguals compared with monolinguals, in particular among older adult bilinguals.
Nonetheless, this bilingual advantage is not replicated consistently, as the effect is heavily modulated by task, age of participants, and bilingual experience, including how frequently a person switches between languages.
The relation between bilingualism and cognition, in general, is not restricted to cognitive control, as documented effects range from differences in decision-making, the evaluation of social rules, false-belief tasks, and changes in the brain. The extent and nature of these effects are currently being explored in different multilingual settings, prevalent around the globe, that could deliver new insights into the adaptive capacities of the bilingual mind.

In the past, bilingualism was deemed to be costly and burdensome, and monolingualism was implicitly taken as the canonical cognitive state that needs explaining. This is partly supported by studies reporting language switching costs when participants switch from one language to another, similar to the cost observed when participants switch between nonlinguistic tasks. However, most studies of language switching costs were not taking into consideration code-switching habits (i.e., bilinguals switching between languages in conversation). Recent studies of speakers who frequently code-switch find no costs of switching when language stimuli align with bilingual experience.

English, is just one of the roughly 7000 languages spoken or signed in the world today. Linguistic research has uncovered substantial diversity: languages vary in their forms, be they speech sounds or manual signs, as well as in their vocabularies, grammars, and usage rules. English is similar to a handful of the world’s languages (often related through history) but very different from most others. Crucially, this diversity is relevant not only for the language sciences, but also for the broader study of cognitive science, as differences in language structures can have knock-on consequences for other, ostensibly nonlinguistic, aspects of cognition.

Illustrative examples of biases brought by English.

Here we integrate a diverse body of recent evidence to highlight the theoretical and practical limitations stemming from this Anglocentric bias.
We do not presume to be exhaustive, but rather aim to showcase a range of phenomena where over-reliance on English has led cognitive scientists to premature claims of universality (due to the over-sampling of English speakers) or has limited the cognitive constructs being examined (due to the use of English as a meta-language in scientific endeavors).

The fact that linguistic diversity is not better represented in the agenda of the cognitive sciences reflects its failure to live up to its original mission of developing an interdisciplinary exploration of ‘the mind’; it may be its ‘original sin’.
Cognitive psychology has become nearly synonymous with cognitive science, but the comparative study of human societies and languages remains shockingly absent or fringe in the discipline’s publications, coursework, and faculty backgrounds. It is hard to envision a radical change in the field if institutions (universities, journals, funding bodies) do not commit to research that seeks to systematically explore, generalize, and falsify our models of human cognition by exploring non-English-speaking peoples and societies.

English as a meta-language for the cognitive sciences

The widespread assumption that language reflects rather than creates categories means that cognitive scientists often do not interrogate their theoretical constructs for broader applicability, even when they should. Over-reliance on English labels means researchers can end up overlooking important dimensions of variation in how humans conceptualize the world. Theoretical notions such as ‘mind’, ‘knowledge’, ‘musical ability’, or ‘anger’ have been shown to vary across populations, showing the meta-linguistic labels used in scientific theorizing need to be adjusted so they do not presume a default English interpretation.

A corollary of this is that English-language researchers are not obliged to add qualifiers to the titles or abstracts of papers indicating their findings apply only to English, but the same standard is not applied to researchers of other languages who are told to demarcate their findings as applicable only to a specific language and context. There is an implicit assumption that findings from English are generalizable to all humans, but studies from other languages are not. This should be a matter of critical reflection for cognitive scientists. For example, research in the neuroscience of reading has proposed a universal functional architecture, but relies on alphabetic terminology (e.g., lettersgraphemes) to label anatomical brain structures (e.g., letter detectors, letterbox area), even though, as outlined in the main text, alphabetic scripts are not universal. Similarly, the Visual Word Form Area (left ventral occipitotemporal cortex) is said not to be sensitive to case (e.g., b vs. B), but in languages like German, where the initial letter of a noun is always capitalized, upper versus lower case is registered in this area.
The moral is not that cognitive scientists should abandon universal theorizing. Rather, universal theorizing requires adequately sampled (i.e., diverse) data and better appreciation of issues of comparability, and the most powerful theories ought to predict and explain variation, not sweep variation under the rug. Until then, perhaps cognitive scientists should be required to use an ‘in English’ qualifier to keep their theorizing in check to the data they have to hand.

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