On the (disputed) advantages of bilingualism

A) An article by , lecturer of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge, lists the benefits of bilingualism .

  • Bilinguals develop more easily cognitive skills such as taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and ignoring irrelevant information. These skills can be applied and transfered to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.
  • Dealing with two languages at a time is not a too heavy load on the kids linguistic, social and cognitive development because learning to speak is genetically programmed. The brain is certainly able to cope with more than one language, as research and experience shows.
  • Another worry doesn’t seem to be based on that much evidence : the fear that if you’re dealing with two languages you won’t learn any of both properly. The results of a research done in Scotland suggests that acquiring two languages does not affect the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of young children, such as their ability to recognise objects, match pictures, or their responsiveness and behaviour in everyday situations. It does, however, temporarily affect their knowledge of English vocabulary. While bilingual children can initially lag behind in naming vocabulary, however, the disadvantage disappears before the age of five for most of them, except for those who have two foreign-born parents.
  • Research showed that bilingualism is associated with more effective controlled processing in children; the assumption is that the constant management of 2 competing languages enhances executive functions. Another research showed that this bilingual advantage persists for adults and that bilingualism attenuates the negative effects of aging on cognitive control in older adults. (see also point 3)

B) Another article by Francois Grosjean, researcher on bilingualism in Switzerland details the effets of bilingualism :

  • Bilinguals
    • are more sensitive to semantic relations between words,
    • are better able to treat sentence structure analytically,
    • are better at rule-discovery tasks,
    • have greater social sensitivity, and so on.

C) Bilingualism not only is an advantage during the develoment of the child, but it can also reduce Alzheimer. A research by Ellen Bialystok  found out that on average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.

D ) On the contrary, some researcher are more skeptical on potential benefits from mastering two or more languages.

 A paper by Kenneth Paap of San Francisco State University and colleagues argued that the evidence now suggests either no bilingual advantage exists, or it only occurs under certain as yet undetermined circumstances.

Some “skeptics” accuse “believers” of dismissing dissenting views and ignoring calls for higher standards. Believers accuse skeptics of selectively citing studies that support their argument, while not taking account the large body of research that supports the bilingual advantage.

Evy Woumans of Ghent University, Belgium, thinks the advantages of a second language may relate to how often a person switches between languages. She and her colleagues recently published a study comparing balanced bilinguals who switch many times a day, with interpreters who switch infrequently. They found that better language switching proficiency was associated with better executive functioning, but only for balanced bilinguals, not interpreters.