Ashley Boersma

Working Memory Differences in Bilinguals’ First and Second Languages

April 10, 2021   /  

Name: Ashley Boersma
Major: Cognitive Behavioral Neuroscience
Minor: Spanish
Advisors: Dr. Ashley Abraham and Dr. Evan Wilhelms

I became interested in bilingualism after attending a K-12 Spanish Immersion Program where I learned Spanish and English concurrently and I later continued studying Spanish both at Wooster and abroad. Bilingualism has been a popular area of study for the past couple of decades and research has found many cognitive benefits associated with bilingualism, including working memory. Working memory is essential for successful performance on many cognitive tasks and has been linked to many cognitive advantages. Although research has identified several bilingual advantages, differences in working memory capacity between bilinguals’ first and second languages have been scarcely studied.

Task performance in bilinguals second-language was predicted to carry a heavier cognitive load and, therefore, negatively influence working memory capacity. As a result, it was predicted that first language working memory capacity would be greater than second language working memory capacity. To measure bilinguals’ working memory capacity in both their first and second languages, operation span tasks and reading span tasks were administered. A self-report questionnaire was also used to gather information regarding second language acquisition.

Results were consistent with the hypothesis and revealed working memory capacity to be greater in bilinguals’ first language than in their second language. However, consistent use of a bilingual’s second language shifted working memory capacity to be greatest in that language. Consequently, greater working memory was not necessarily dependent on language status but rather on the frequency of language use.

Click here to view Ashely’s presentation.

Ashley will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST: 9-11am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

58 thoughts on “Working Memory Differences in Bilinguals’ First and Second Languages”

  1. This is a very interesting project and nicely done Ashley! I work with children who are acquiring both English and American Sign Language and this work is certainly applicable to that population as well. Your presentation nicely laid out your project and results. Good job!

    1. Thats so interesting and I can imagine my work is applicable to that population as well, it would be interesting to look further into that. Thank you for taking the time to check out my project!

  2. Wow, Ashley! Great work! I love how you investigated multiple second languages. Congrats!

    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed investigating something that I identify with and have been curious about!

  3. Congratulations Ashley! Do you think that the similarities between orthographies between a person’s first and second language may contribute to the extent of their personal working memory differences across languages?

    1. Thank you for taking the time to engage with my project, Dr. Colvin! It would be interesting to further investigate but I do predict that similarities between orthographies between individuals’ first and second languages contribute to working memory differences. I appreciate your question and your interest in my topic!

  4. Ashley, such a fascinating topic! Memory. Your IS focusses on differences in working memory capacity between bilinguals’ first and second languages have been scarcely studied. This is not my field. I wonder if there are multiple types of memory. Would you apply your conclusions to different type of memories?

    1. Hola Profe Hernan Medina! Thank you for taking the time to check out my project and thank you for your help in recruiting participants. There are in deed many other types of memory and it would be interesting to see how they may differ between bilinguals’ languages. I focused on working memory as it is a more dynamic form of memory and is crucial for successful completion of many cognitive tasks including learning. Some forms of memory are more static (ex: short term memory) than working memory and working memory can also be a gateway into other forms of memory (ex: long-term memory). I would speculate that the application of my conclusions to other types of memory would be dependent on the characteristics of that memory form.

  5. Thanks for presenting your work Ashely. I wonder about code switching for bilingual individuals and how much of your finding relates to the participant actually translating the problem in their own head in order to solve it? This seems to relate to the idea that if they use the second language more, their WM improves, right?

    1. Thank you for taking the time to check out my project, Dr. Stav! I had not previously thought about code switching but you bring up an interesting and thought provoking point. I do agree that it seems related to the idea that greater second language use would result in improved working memory capacity.

  6. Congratulations Ashley! Do you expect that your results would be consistent throughout social settings if say, someone uses one language at home but another at school or could there be a difference due to interactions with parents versus peers?

    1. Thank you, Evan! Congratulations to you as well on completing IS! I was interested in investigating this, however, but due to a lack of diversity and variation in participant responses I was unable to form any conclusions. With a larger and more diverse sample it would be interesting to see the outcomes. I would predict social settings to not have a significant difference in working memory capacity between languages but rather it be more dependent on which language they use more often. If they use both languages an equal amount then I would predict working memory to be relatively similar between the two languages. I appreciate your question and thanks for checking out my project!

  7. Great work, Ashley! Awsesome study. It was my pleasure to work with you on your IS. Good luck in all that you do after your time at Wooster!

    1. Thank you Dr. Abraham! I greatly appreciate all your guidance and mentorship throughout this process. I have learned a lot and it was a great experience!

  8. Nice work! Interesting topic. I wish we had more immersion programs at early academic stages.

    1. Thank you Coach for checking out my project! I agree and from what I found in my study it appears immersion program at any age are beneficial as long as students are experiencing consistent exposure and use of the second language!

    1. Thank you, Lillian! Thanks for all your love and support throughout the process!

  9. Congrats Ashley! I’m so proud of everything you have done for this project and at Wooster in general. I don’t know anyone else that could handle being such an amazing student, holding down a job, and being a superstar on the lax field, not to mention being a supportive friend & roomie. I can’t wait to see all you do in the future <3

    1. Miura! I could not have done it all without you and all your support! So proud of all your accomplishments and so grateful to have you by my side! So much love and appreciation for you!

  10. Congrats Ashley! Your study is really interesting and I can tell you put a lot of hard work into it. I’m so proud of you!

  11. Congratulations on everything Ashley. So thankful to have seen it all come to fruition for you! I have always wondered the difference between the brains of those who speak another language and those who don’t. When I took French, I constantly was thinking in 2 different languages, and still find myself doing it now. This is very interesting because I always feel my mind working much harder when I am using thinking about French.

    1. Thank you, Britta! I am so appreciative of all your love and support throughout this process. I am glad you enjoyed my topic and I also find myself experiencing many of the same experiences in Spanish that you described when working in French. It is also interesting to reflect back and apply the results from this study to personal experiences.

  12. YAY ASH! This presentation was amazing and made me understand the concept. Congratulations, this is so cool!

    1. Thank you, Elena! Although I wish I was a talented artist like you, I am glad you were able to enjoy my project and presentation 🙂 Thank you for all the ice cream nights and support throughout the process!

    1. Thank you, Megan! Congratulation to you as well on all your hard work and accomplishments regarding IS. Thank you for all your help throughout the editing processes!

  13. Nice job and congratulations! I’m curious – where did you attend a K-12 Spanish-English immersion program?

    1. Thank you for taking the time to check out my project, Carla! And thank you for all your help in connecting me with students to help with translating testing materials. I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the K-12 Spanish immersion program I attended is called Ada Vista. I had such a wonderful experience and am a big supporter of dual language immersion programs!

  14. Congratulations, Ashley! This is such a fascinating topic and your explanation of the results is accessible and relevant. I also love the design of your presentation, it’s informative, concise, and engaging! I’m wondering, how did you get participants for this study?

    1. Thank you for checking out my project and being so engaging with the topic! I advertised my study on SONA and to students in the Spanish and Chinese department. I also advertised my my study via social media on Instagram and Facebook. It was not a speedy nor easy process finding participants, however, I was pleased with the outcome, despite the difficulties!

  15. SO PROUD OF YOU BUDDY!! This is so awesome! Very interesting and informative!! See you later 🙂

  16. Hi Ashley, Congrats on a thoroughly well executed and presented project – very interesting! Best of luck!

    1. Thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to check it out and engage with project!

  17. ASHHHH, I am so proud to see your journey with your project. I love you and I can’t wait to see where you head in the future!

    1. Thank you, Anna!! Thank you for all your love and support throughout this process 🙂

  18. Congratulations, Ashley!! I’m curious about the cognitive implications for people who were once bilingual but forgot their first language over time (perhaps as children). Will you continue working on anything related to bilingualism after your time at Wooster?

    1. Thank you, Professor Thomas! As I did not focus so much on cognition between bilinguals and monolinguals but rather the differences between bilinguals’ languages, it would be interesting to further investigate this to see whether or not individuals who were once bilinguals experienced enhanced cognitive abilities over monolinguals! I have really enjoyed working on this research regarding bilingualism, especially as I have a personal interest in the topic, however, in the future, I see myself engaging more in cognition as it relates to children and individuals with learning and developmental disabilities.

  19. This study is so interesting! So proud of you and cannot wait to see what you accomplish in life 🙂

    1. Thank you, tommy! Thank you for all your love and support throughout this process!

  20. Ashley, what a fascinating project! You should be very proud. What was the most difficult part of figuring out your methods and then gathering your data?

    1. Thank you, Matt! The most difficult part of my methods was creating an online test battery and all the materials for the OSPAN and Reading Span tasks, especially those in Chinese (a language I had no experience or familiarity with). Recruiting enough participants also presented some difficulties along with scoring and cleaning up the data so that analysis could be ran. Despite the many challenges, I learned a lot throughout this project and was proud of the outcomes! Thanks again for engaging with my project!

  21. Ashely!

    This is fascinating! Congrats, you should be proud! Thank you for being such a kind soul, I know you’ll do great things.

  22. Amazing work Ashely! As someone who is trilingual, I wonder what my results would look like in the language I’m least confident in…would it be lower than the first two? Probably. Anyways, I love this project!

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