Understanding cognitive and language development in refugees: Evidence from displaced Syrian children in Turkey

Özlem Yeter*, Ebru Evcen, Hugh Rabagliati, Duygu Özge*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The present study introduces systematic data on the cognitive and linguistic abilities of refugee children. We tested 9–10 year-old Syrian refugee children (N = 25) on their cognitive abilities (i.e., working memory, shifting, inhibitory control, and fluid intelligence) and vocabulary knowledge in Arabic and Turkish. We compared their performance to two non-refugee control groups with low socioeconomic status, matched on age and mother’s education: Arabic-Turkish bilinguals (N = 29) and Turkish monolinguals (N = 19). Refugee children lagged behind both non-refugee groups in the fluid intelligence task. Compared to their bilingual peers, they showed poorer performance in working memory and shifting tasks. On the other hand, these scores matched their monolingual peers, with only slower performance in the shifting task. Greater exposure to trauma and poverty were predictors for lower scores in refugee children’s cognitive tasks. On the language tests, refugee children exhibited a smaller Turkish vocabulary size compared to both non-refugee controls. Trauma exposure, poverty and kindergarten attendance factors were significant predictors for this difference. As for the Arabic language skills, Syrian children outperformed their bilingual peers in Arabic. Although Syrian children displayed a more balanced bilingual profile, their performance in their dominant language (Arabic) was poorer than the bilingual control group’s performance in their dominant language (Turkish). Overall, the results suggest that refugee children’s working memory, shifting and fluid intelligence abilities, as well as mother tongue development, were negatively affected by forced displacement, but they were able to develop Turkish vocabulary skills and match Turkish monolinguals on both working memory and shifting abilities. This is the first piece of evidence suggesting that while being a refugee has adverse effects on children’s cognitive and linguistic development, holding bilingual status may actually create a protective shield in some cognitive abilities for disadvantaged refugee children.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101412
Number of pages18
JournalCognitive Development
Early online date1 Jan 2024
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Syrian refugees
  • trauma
  • bilingualism
  • cognitive abilities
  • vocabulary knowledge


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