Bilingualism: boon or bane?

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Guy Deutscher, author of « Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages », reviewed the current state of research to answer the question: » Does your Language Shape How You Think? » Mr.Deutscher gives interesting examples showing that language does indeed compel the speakers to express thoughts in a particular way or to provide the listener with certain information, whether about the gender as in French or German as opposed to English or about how the speaker came to know the facts they are reporting as for the Matses in Peru. Click here to read the article.

As the first bilingual French-English charter school in New York City, the New York French American Charter School, will open in September ,2010 we may well ask, following Mr. Deutscher’s inquiries, whether bilingualism shapes how the speakers think, whether there are any benefits, aside from the obvious cultural ones, to learning another language from the earliest age? Wouldn’t such bilingualism overtax the abilities of some children and render them less proficient in both languages? To answer some of the questions one may have about bilingualism, I did a cursory ,and wholly unscientific, survey of the literature in the last 3 years and share here what caught my attention.

What are the benefits of an early bilingual education?

According to studies of kindergartners done at Harvard by Prof.Silverman[1] pupils who speak another language at home and who learn English as a second language acquire a general vocabulary in English at a faster rate than English-only pupils of the same age.

Early bilinguals are able to learn another language faster than monolinguals and are better able to learn new words in their own language as shown by Viorica Marian and Margarita Kaushanskaya, professors of communication science at Northwestern University[2].

Professors Marian and Kaushanskaya’s research also answers a question many parents have when deciding whether to educate their children bilingually: will bilingual education confuse or slow down my child’s learning? In their article « Bilingualism reduces native-language interference during novel-word learning »[3], they show that bilinguals are better able than monolinguals to filter out « noise »-irrelevant information- when learning a new language.Accordingly, bilingual education from an early age helps rather than hinders a child’s development.

Parents may be wondering if it is worth going to the trouble of providing an early bilingual education to their offsprings if the child then loses the second language through lack of use. Recent research by Bristol University researchers[4] suggests that people who were exposed to another language when young not only relearn the forgotten language more rapidly but retain the ability to pronounce difficult sounds of the second language. They used Hindi and Zulu as second languages because these languages have phonemes –sound units- that are very difficult for native English speakers to recognize and reproduce. They found that the subject quickly relearnt to recognize and pronounce those foreign phonemes. We have all observed cases of people who lost a language learnt as a child who, when relearning it as adults, are able to pronounce it like native speakers.

Monolingual education of children from homes where another language is spoken has another very real negative impact on the construction of the child’s identity, language learning and critical thinking development as Elena Constantinou, doctoral student at the University of Leicester showed in her June 24,2010 presentation « Exclusion of mother tongue problematises identity construction » at the Festival of Postgraduate Research of the University[5].

How early should bilingual education start?

The short answer is as early as possible, even during pregnancy! As shown by psychologists Krista Byers-Heinlein, and Janet Werker (University of British Columbia) and Tracey Burns of the OECD who studied mothers speaking both English and Tagalog during pregnancy[6] and mothers who spoke only English, monolingual babies were only interested in English whereas bilingual babies showed no preference for one language or the other suggesting that those infants have a predisposition for bilingual learning.

Their research showed also that infants are able to discriminate between the two languages and to keep them apart. This research extends the earliest age at which infants can tell apart two languages. A previous study showed that 4- and 6-month-old infants can discriminate languages (English from French) just from viewing silently presented articulations. By the age of 8 months, only bilingual (French-English) infants succeed at this task.[7]

Bilingualism’s impact on brain structure and use of brain resources

« Can early language exposure modify neural tissue? Does extensive and maintained exposure to two languages from early life leave a « bilingual signature » on the human brain? How do bilinguals avoid confusing their two languages as they rapidly process their languages and /or move from one language context to another? Do early proficient bilinguals process language differently from monolinguals and recruit different neural tissue across all contexts, including one language at a time and two languages in rapid alternation?[8] Or do such bilinguals process language similarly to monolinguals and recruit similar neural tissue but not across all contexts?[9] » These are the questions that Professor Ioulia Kovelman and her co-workers set out to answer using novel neuro-imaging techniques[10].Her conclusions are well worth quoting in full:

« Early and extensive dual language exposure appears to have an impact on how the bilingual brain processes language within classical language areas (IFC, BA) as well as brain areas that support language processing (DLPFC, BA46/9 and IFC BA 47/11).The overall implication is that this neural change is entirely positive-bilinguals can read and listen to semantic information in each of their languages with the same effectiveness as monolinguals. The bilingual brain also develops mechanisms that allow for successful processing of two languages concurrently in a bilingual mode. We therefore hope that scientists, educators and bilingual policymakers, alike, will take notice of the present findings-especially those who decide on educational settings for the nation’s young bilinguals and whether early bilingual language learning as a child harms one’s dual language, reading, and cognitive processing as an adult. To be sure, we found no evidence of harm and instead found evidence that the bilingual brain processes each of the two languages with the aplomb of a monolingual brain processing one. »[11]

These results were confirmed in a study carried out by Professor Ibrahim of the Department of Learning Disabilities of Haifa University[12] who investigated whether one or both languages of an Arabic-Hebrew bilingual individual are disrupted following brain damage. In this case, his investigation led to the conclusion that the Arabic and Hebrew language capabilities of the patient resided in two different areas of the brain even though the two languages are semantically very close.[13]

Are there any benefits of bilingualism in adulthood?

Indubitably yes. Indeed, Alzheimer’s has been shown by Prof. Bialystok to be delayed by an average of four years in bilinguals versus monolinguals[14].Similarly, Dr.Gilit Kavé and her co-workers at the Herczeg Institute on Aging at Tel Aviv University have shown that senior citizens who speak several languages show less mental aging than monolinguals: the more languages you speak the better your cognitive states are when you get older. The study was conducted on people between the ages of 75 and 95.[15]

Last, but not least, according to a 2009 report by research team appointed by the European Commission entitled « The Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity »[16], click here to read the Report, multilinguals show superior performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks, higher creativity and mental flexibility compared to monolinguals.

©2010 Pierre F. de Ravel d’Esclapon


[1]Elementary School Journal, 107(4), 365-383 (2007): Rebecca Deffes Silverman: »Vocabulary Development of English-Language and English-Only Learners in Kindergarten ».

[2] « The Bilingual Advantage in Novel Word Learning » (2009) Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,   16, 705-710.

[3] J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2009 May; 35(3):829-35.

[4] J.Bowers,S.Mattys and S.Gage « Preserved Implicit Knowledge of a Forgotten Childhood Language » Psychological Science 2009;20(9):1064

[5] http://www2.le.ac.uk/ebulletin/news/press-releases/2010-2019/2010/06/nparticle.2010-06-09.4016247525. While her research focused on children whose home language is the Cypriot dialect, her findings should apply to other communities as well.

[6] Byers-Heinlein, K., Burns, T.F., & Werker, J.F. ( 2010). « The roots of bilingualism in newborns ». Psychological Science, 21(3), 343-348,(2010) doi: 10.1177/0956797609360758

[7]« Visual Language Discrimination in Infancy » Whitney M. Weikum, Athena Vouloumanos, Jordi Navarra, Salvador Soto-Faraco, Núria Sebastián-Gallés, and Janet F. Werker Science 25 May 2007:Vol. 316. no. 5828, p. 1159 DOI: 10.1126/science.1137686.

[8] The neuroscientists refer to this as the Neural Signature Hypothesis

[9] This is the so-called Functional Switching Hypothesis.

[10] « Shining New Light on the Brain’s « Bilingual Signature »: a Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy Investigation of Semantic Processing » I. Kovelman, M.H. Shalinsky, M.S.Berens and L.Petitto  Neuroimage 39(2008) 1457-1471.To read the article click here.Interested readers may also enjoy her other papers:« Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development« Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11 (2), 2008, 203–223 ; »Dual language use in sign-speech bimodal bilinguals: fNIRS brain-imaging evidence« Brain & Language 109 (2009) 112–123;L.Petitto « New Discoveries From the Bilingual Brain and Mind Across the Life Span: Implications for Education »MIND, BRAIN, AND EDUCATION vol.4

[11] Id.p.1468.

[12] « Selective deficit of second language: a case study of a brain-damaged Arabic-Hebrew bilingual patient » Behavioral and Brain Functions 2009, 5:17doi:10.1186/1744-9081-5-17

[13] Interested readers will benefit from studying the literature quoted in Professor Ibrahim’s footnotes.

[14] « Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia » Bialystok E., Craik F.I. & Freedman M. Neuropsychologia 45(7),2007 ,459-464

[15] Kavé, G., Eyal, N., Shorek, A., & Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2008). Multilingualism and cognitive state in the oldest old. Psychology and Aging, 23(1), 70-78.

[16] EC Public Service Contract No EACEA/2007/3995/2 16 July 2009

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