Sep 25, 2019 in Informative

Benefits of Bilingualism

Probably due to xenophobia and an increased nationalism seen in the acquisition of the English language only, a part of American society used to believe that bilingualism is not good for children’s mental and intellectual development. Until the middle of the twentieth century, there was a prevailing opinion that bilingual children had developmental delays and lower vocabularies and bilingual families often faced a dilemma whether to teach their children their native languages or only English. However, the development of cognitive neuroscience revealed that bilingualism is in fact an advantage for many spheres of a person’s life, from personal and health-related to social. While a child’s brain is developing, it is the best time to offer it as much stimulating influence as possible. That is what the use of a second language does, so a bilingual child’s brain will be able to demonstrate more flexible and better performance, in comparison to its monolingual peers. Although there is an opinion that a second language from an early age would impair a native language, a growing number of researchers argue that bilingualism is very beneficial for children’s cognitive abilities, positively influences intellectual performance, and in the long run it improves their health.

First of all, early learning of a second language significantly improves cognitive abilities such as memory, adaptability, an ability to multitask, and thinking process. One of the ways how bilinguality helps brain work better is through the executive control system (Bialystok). The system singles out what is important and pushes aside what is irrelevant. In their everyday activities bilingual people have both languages available simultaneously in their head the executive control system is constantly exercised by choosing what language shall be spoken. Thus, the executive control system is improved with a constant usage and it does not refer to a second language learnt at school. Therefore, multitasking becomes one of the benefits bilingualism develops. Ellen Bialystok tells about a test her team did on people trying to see whether their knowledge of languages influence their ability for multitasking. Both monolinguals and bilinguals were placed into a driving simulator and given an additional task to talk on mobile phones while driving. The results revealed that in both groups driving worsened when driving became combined with talking. However, the monolinguals showed worse results than the bilinguals who were used to doing two things simultaneously.

Among other results that Bialystok and her colleagues found out was the fact that bilingual flexibility is used by brain for non-language purposes. Offering children to sort out four sets of cards with two types of color (red and green) and two types of shape (round and square), the researchers noticed that the first stage, when the children were asked to sort the cards by color, was completed both by monolinguals and bilinguals equally correctly. But the second stage, when the children were asked to sort the cards by shape, caused difficulties for the monolinguals that could not ignore the color and concentrate only on the shape. Bialystok and her colleagues ruled out the difference between monolinguals and bilinguals in their ability to understand color and shape and in their ability to switch between their motor skills for each task. However, their ability to change one rule to another or to switch between different concepts differs bilinguals from monolinguals. It means that bilingualism helps people “ignore one dimension and attend to a different one”.

The studies of neural activity revealed the reason why bilinguals perform better than their peers who speak only one language. The activity in different brain areas showed that when learning new words bilinguals use automatic systems of cortical circuits rather than memory: “Whereas monolinguals seemed to try to use brute force memory, bilinguals worked to sort the words into different piles”. Early learning of a second language allows bilinguals to develop their inner mechanism for memorizing new words and rely on this implicit system with spending fewer efforts on it. Thus, bilingualism provides enhanced cognitive control and performance both in language learning and non-language applications.

Apart from the improved cognitive processes, bilingualism improves the result in actually learning the language. Although there is evidence that bilinguals may have a lower vocabulary in each language, it is counterbalanced by their other abilities. For example, bilingual children demonstrate a better performance in learning new vocabulary. In a research of Hanako Yoshida and Crystal Tran, a group of children were showed identical objects of different colors or material (for example, fluffy and red) and asked to give the instructor the ‘firby’ one. The better results of the bilinguals demonstrate that they are more adaptive. Actually, an intensive learning of a second language improves the ability to learn new vocabulary in any age. A research of Judy McLaughlin, Lee Osterhout, and Albert Kim demonstrated that after 138 hours of introductory French the participants showed better results in learning new words and recognizing new meanings than the control group of people who did not have a second language.

Another issue that occurs less in bilinguals than in monolinguals is different speech perception and contrasts between languages. Bilinguals have a better command of difficult consonants and vowels in both languages while when monolinguals begin learning a foreign language face difficulties with phoneme differentiation and pronunciation. Often sound confusion occurs due to late exposure to the language. For example, for Spanish people who speak both the Spanish and Catalan languages there is an issue of the sounds [ε] and [e] because [ε] is not present in Spanish and non-native speakers of Catalan confuse two sounds and cannot distinguish [ε] in speech. The researchers experiments with those bilinguals who had contacts before age 3 with Spanish with their native language being Catalan called Catalan Dominant and those bilinguals who had contacts before age 3 with Catalan with their native language being Spanish called Spanish Dominant. Both groups were offered non existing words and without stressing that the researchers’ attention is on the above mentioned sounds the participants were asked to indicate the first syllable. The results revealed that Spanish Dominant were unable to correctly indicate syllable and oversaw the sound [ε] but their responses were quick, while Catalan Dominant gave correct answers in more cases but at a much slower speed. Therefore, bilingualism proves “the fundamental importance of early language exposure in the development of speech sound categories”.


Meanwhile there are researchers who do not want to gauge bilingualism only in laboratory environment. Psycholinguist Aneta Pavlenko, Russian-English bilingual herself, came to study the difference in a bilingual view of the world and themselves. Pavlenko argues that when language experts write that different languages “determine people’s thoughts” it signifies that “the world [is] imagined to be monolingual”. Therefore, Pavlenko made up a questionnaire for bilingual people to create a database and found out that bilingual and multilingual people find different languages suitable for different purposes. For example, those non-English people who reside mostly in English-speaking countries find it more convenient to express anger in English because they are more exposed to swear words and the situation when they can copy other people’s angry behavior. Also, bilinguals remark that they prefer to express feelings of love and care using words from their native languages such as Welsh or Spanish as they find English words poorer in terms of endearment. Meanwhile, the participants claim that languages influence the way bilinguals feel about themselves saying: “Speaking other languages causes me to assume certain cultural perspectives that also entail certain behaviours”. Thus, Pavlenko demonstrates that the knowledge of two languages or more is crucial to a person’s perception of oneself and affects the way a person perceives the world.

Additionally to cognitive and behavioral changes, bilingualism positively influences intellectual abilities of early learners. In the 1940s, a large group of Irish children of 11 years old was tested for their IQ as part of standard British education policy test. After researchers recently discovered these data these people, in their 70s, were tested again. The IQ test scores of those people who speak two or more languages appeared to be better than of their monolingual peers. These results suggest that bilingualism has positive effects on people’s intellectual abilities.

Besides, the knowledge of a second language and its habitual usage is beneficial for health in older adult bilinguals. The 2004 study showed terrific results for aging people. At first, the participants had to press a right button when they see a red shape on the right and then they had to press again a right button when they see the same color and the same shape on the left. Usually, when there is a difference between color and side of response, as was the case with color and shape in the example above, people’s reaction slows. Those monolinguals who were in their 40s slowed half a second longer than their bilingual peers, while in their 60s the difference in their reactions was one and a half second. Therefore, Bialystok and her team proved that bilingualism can a cumulative effect and in the long run is very beneficial for human reactions and cognitive abilities.

Another health advantage for elder bilinguals is a delay of Alzheimer’s disease. Studying the cases of four hundred Alzheimer’s patients Bialystok and her colleagues found out that while bilingualism does not prevent Alzheimer’s disease but it can delay the symptoms. Thus, monolinguals have the onset of the disease four-six years earlier than their bilingual peers. It means that bilingual brains are better equipped to combat Alzheimer’s due to its cognitive control.

All the above said successfully proves that speaking two or more languages from early age on has very positive effects of people’s cognitive abilities, intellect, and health. Cognitive processes are enhanced through the executive control system that gets used to switching between the languages and thus is exercised. It also helps bilingual people to be better at multitasking. Besides, the knowledge of a second language and its habitual usage provides enhanced cognitive control and performance both in language learning and non-language applications due to its ability to switch from one rule to another or between different concepts. The behavioral and intellectual benefits of bilingualism are a better performance in learning new vocabulary, better phoneme differentiation, and a more varied view of the world and oneself. Additionally, bilingualism has health benefits for older adult bilinguals. Getting older bilinguals do not get their cognitive processes worsen so much as their monolingual peers. Thus, speaking more than one language improves cognitive abilities of bilinguals on the whole and postpones the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by four-six years in comparison to their monolingual peers.


Related essays