Advantages of bilingualism

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way

Frank Smith, Psycholinguist, in his book ‘To think’, 1990

At the most basic level, being raised with more than one language from birth is beneficial for children in that it opens up future travel, educational, literary, employment, and marriage opportunities. In addition to this – and contrary to any negative myths about bilingualism that may still persist today – countless studies have shown that bilingualism also has positive and lasting effects on brain function and memory (see for example Bialystok et al, 2012; Craik et al., 2010; Kovács and Mehler, 2009; Luk et al., 2011; Mohades et al., 2015).

Children being raised bilingually from birth have a lot more to learn than monolingual children, however, there is little evidence to suggest that this causes language developmental delay (De Houwer, 1999; Petitto and Holowka, 2002). Zurer Pearson (2008) discusses a number of studies looking at language development milestone measures, and suggests that individual differences between children have more of an influence on language development than the number of languages a child is learning. Bilingualism may be wrongly blamed for speech delay in a child who in fact has another underlying disorder or, in some cases, the term ‘delay’ may mistakenly be used in a context where the problem is in fact unintelligibility. This is a surprisingly common occurrence whereby a child’s chatter is not recognized as ‘real’ speech by parents/carers who are not listening for the right language (Navarro, 1998).

Bjork and Kroll (2015) argue that the extra work bilingual children have to do when learning more than one language is in fact beneficial for their brain development, and that this could, in turn, explain the plethora of cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism. A number of recent studies have shown significant differences between simultaneous bilinguals (individuals who learn two languages from birth) and those who acquire a second language later on (Kaiser et al., 2015; Krizman et al., 2015), confirming the idea that exposure to more than one language is beneficial right from day one.

References:

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cogn Sci., 16(4), 240-250.

Bjork & Kroll. (2015). Desirable difficulties in vocabulary learning. American Journal of Psychology, 128(2), 241–252.

Craik, F., Bialystok, E., & Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 75(9 November 2010), 1726-1729.

Cunningham, U. (2011). Research and further reading. Growing up with two languages. (3rd ed.). (pp. 164-184). London and New York: Routledge.

De Houwer, A. (1999). Two or more languages in early childhood: Some general points and practical recommendations. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Kaiser, A., Eppenberger, L., Smieskova, R., Borgwardt, S., Kuenzli, E., Radue, E.-W., . . . Bendfeldt, K. (2015). Age of second language acquisition in multilinguals has an impact on gray matter volume in language-associated brain areas. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(6).

King, K. and Fogle, L. (2006). Raising bilingual children: Common parental concerns and current research. CAL Digest.

Kovács, Á., & Mehler, J. (2009). Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants. PNAS, 106(16), 6556-6560.

Krizman, J., Slater, J., Skoe, E., Marian, V., & Kraus, N. (2015). Neural processing of speech in children is influenced by extent of bilingual experience. Neuroscience letters, 585(12 January 2015), 48-53.

Luk, G., Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Grady, C. L. (2011). Lifelong Bilingualism Maintains White Matter Integrity in Older Adults. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(46), 16808–16813.

Mohades, S., Van Schuerbeek, P., Rosseel, Y., Van De Craen, P., Luypaert, R., & Baeken, C. (2015). White-matter development is different in bilingual and monolingual children: A longitudinal DTI study. PLoS ONE, 10(2).

Navarro, A. (1998). Phonetic effects of the ambient language in early speech: Comparisons of monolingual and bilingual learning children. Miami: University of Miami.

Petitto, L. and Holowka, S. (2002). Evaluating attributions of delay and confusion in young bilinguals: Special insights from infants acquiring a signed and spoken language. Sign Language Studies, 3(1), 4-33.

Smith, F. (1990). To think. Teachers College Press.

Zurer Pearson, B. (2008). Chapter 7: Research comparing monolinguals and bilinguals. A step-by-step guide for parents: Raising a bilingual child. (pp. 241-286). United States: Living Language.

Additional resources on the advantages of bilingualism: