Monday, March 11, 2013

A Gift of Cognitive Ability?

Devin Pope wrote a nifty paper (“Benefits of bilingualism: Evidence from Mormon missionaries,” Economics of Education Review, September 29, 2006) that explored the theory that learning a second language increases cognitive ability.  He summarizes the paper in the abstract

Several studies have argued that learning a foreign language has the potential to increase the general cognitive ability and test scores of students. In this analysis, the Mormon missionary program is used to test whether or not students who were assigned to learn a foreign language performed better in college. The results indicate that the increase in GPA due to serving a Mormon mission is the same for students that were assigned to a foreign-speaking mission relative to students that were assigned to an English-speaking mission. These results are robust to controlling for factors such as choice of major and class load.

Pope’s findings are at variance with accepted theory and this adds to the importance of his findings but I found the experimental design the most interesting aspect of the paper.  Missionaries are assigned a location and language. They start and end at the same institution, BYU.  It is difficult to imagine a better natural experiment and this adds credence to his statistical results.  Learning a second language did increase academic performance but no more than serving a mission in a missionary’s native language.  My non-scientific conclusion is that God loves all his servants and blesses them. 

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