Does bilingualism make you smarter?

Aug 23, 2010 by

In the last posting I mentioned that many of today’s parents believe that growing up with a second language makes children smarter. Does it? It depends on your definition of “smarter”.

In recent years, there has been much research on bilingualism and its effects on the general cognitive development. For example, the studies conducted by Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and the author of Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition, show that bilingual children tend to have smaller vocabularies in English than their monolingual counterparts, and that the limited vocabulary tends to be words used at home (spatula and squash) rather than words used at school (astronaut, rectangle). The measurement of vocabulary is always in one language: a bilingual child’s collective vocabulary from both languages will probably be larger.

An additional disadvantage of bilingualism, according to Prof. Bialystok, is that bilingual children have to work harder to access the right word in the right language, which can slow them down — by milliseconds, but slower nonetheless. However, bilingual children pay more attention to the right choice of words, which may not be a bad thing. Perhaps, it is bilingual children that grow up to be better public speakers, although I don’t know of any definitive research on that.

But although it may seem that bilingualism carries heavy costs in terms of a limited vocabulary and slower word access, there are other cognitive areas where bilingual children have a clear advantage over their monolingual peers. For example, already in the 1960s-1970s neuroscientists and psychologists showed that bilingual children are better at creative thinking, for example, they perform better at tasks that involve coming up with new uses for familiar objects.

But probably the most important benefit of bilingualism is the better ability to isolate information presented in confusing ways. In one frequently used test, words like red and green flash across a screen, but the words actually appear in purple and yellow. Bilingual children are faster at identifying what color the word is written in.

Researchers attribute this ability to a more developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive decision-making, like which language to use with certain people. This part of the brain is also responsible for such functions as inhibition and control. People who have injuries in the prefrontal cortex have difficulties performing tasks that involve switching attention. While it is difficult to draw a direct connection between the national policy towards monolingualism and the recent raise in ADD and similar disorders, there may be some connection there.

What has been shown with great certainty is that bilingual children exhibit advantages in such non-verbal tasks as distinguishing such “two-in-one” images as the ones shown below. Typically, monolingual children under six have a difficult time seeing two images (and especially being able to switch from one to the other and back).

Bilingual children do much better at “seeing” the two facets of such ambiguous images: the old woman and the young lady; two faces or a vase; a woman’s face or a saxophone player. It would be interesting to compare results from bilingual children with those of bilingual and monolingual adults.

Moreover, bilingual children do better at tasks that involve estimating sizes and multiplicity, once again especially in the presence of confusing information. For instance, consider the following experiment: a child is presented with two towers made of blocks of different sizes (e.g., red blocks are twice as big as blue blocks). The red tower is taller than the blue tower even though the red tower is made of fewer blocks (since the red blocks are themselves bigger). The child is asked to count the number of blocks in each tower and then to compare the height of the towers. After that, the child is asked which of the tower has more “apartments” (each block is said to represent an apartment). The correct answer is “the blue tower” (which is shorter but consists of smaller blocks). As it turns out, bilingual children give the correct answer more often than monolingual children.

And although it may seem from the above that bilingual advantages are all in the non-verbal sphere, this is not entirely true. Bilingual children are much better at metalinguistic tasks: they pay more attention to the linguistic form regardless of the meaning it expresses. This was shown in experiments such as the following: a child is asked to repeat the sentence said by the experimenter, but to replace a certain word by a certain other word, regarless of how it affects the meaning of the sentence. For example, the word we should be replaced by spaghetti — how would you say We are good children? Bilingual children easily played this game, while their monolingual counterparts were stumbled more frequently by the nonsensical result of the transformation. But is this ability to operate with linguistic forms useful at all? Or is it as nonsensical as the resulting Spaghetti is good children? Indeed, this ability is very helpful in learning new languages — so it is entirely unsurprising that children who grow up bilingual are better language learners even later in life.

To sum up, early bilingualism (i.e., growing up with more than one language) has more than one positive effect on cognitive development: it promotes early development of the prefrontal cortex responsible for decision-making and control; improves attention; hones the ability to “see through” confusing information; facilitates foreign language learning later in life and cultivates creative thinking. So if any of these falls under your definition of “smart”, than certainly bilingualism makes you smarter.

Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: