30 April 2018
Bilingualism: The Good & the Bad
The power of language on Earth and in our lives is incredible; truly incomparable. It serves a beautiful purpose in communicating the thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions of its users, while also becoming a tool for creating relationships, friendships, and cultural ties. Language is capable of shaping our perception of reality and acting as the light to our ever so dynamic minds. Linguist Edward Sapir believes language is a means for carrying out expressions of thoughts, sentiments, perceptions, and value characteristics of community, while also being a representation of a fundamental expression of social identity. Language is a gift that will forever be giving. Many have even acquired the depths of bilingual speaking; meaning they can fluently speak two languages. Children across the globe are falling into this category of multi-language ability and it continues to receive questioning. Even more so being that these languages are introduced during the most critical moments of brain development. The question of bilingualism becomes this; is bilingualism good or bad for the cognitive development of children?
For a handful of researchers, scientists, and linguists, it is true that bilingualism raises more problems for the cognitive development of children. Many theories seek to examine the effect of mental retardation caused my bilingualism. At the turn of the twentieth century, studies on bilingualism were being done and based on the, “circumstances and the unbalanced methodological proceedings” (Hamers & Blanc, 1989:33) they concluded that bilingualism
caused defects in intelligence and was “damaging influence on children’s mental development as well as a cause of mental retardation and social ineptitude” (Hamers & Blanc, 1989:33). A study was taken during the immigration boom to North America and the effects in the bilingual children. Stephen Jay Gould reported on the testing done and found that the scores of the bilingualists were so low that they were soon labeled as, “mentally unfit and inferior”. Researches continued to push, based on the Stanford-Binet test, and declare bilingualism in children as a danger to intelligence and a, “state of mental confusion, as bilingual children had lower IQ values than their monolingual peers” (Nagy, 2013).
A delay in bilingual children’s lexical development has also caught some light and sparked question about the negative effects of bilingualism in children. Some researchers believe that, “because of the simultaneous acquisition of two or more languages, bilingual children start speaking later than monolingual children” (Nagy, 2013). In the late 20th century, linguistic researchers believed and created theories to show that there was a significant lexical delay in bilingual speaking children, especially their in their language development. They then presumed that this delay in children could cause issues and difficulties later in their development and lifetime. After having tested bilingual students in both of their languages, linguists, Rosenblum and Pinker, Umbel, Pearson, Fernandez and Oller, came to conclude that, “bilinguals’ lexical skills are restricted and below monolingual children’s lexical skills” (Nagy, 2013). In a recent article, Francois Grosjean also supported this theory, stating that the reason bilingual children are not performing as well as the monolingual children on vocabulary tests is because they, “start being affected by the complementarity principle which states that bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, and with different people” (Grosjean, 2011).
Authors and researchers, Ellen Bialystok, Craik Fergus, and Luk Gigi, have found and reported on evidence that demonstrates that, “the verbal skills of bilinguals in each language are generally weaker than are those for monolingual speakers of each language. Considering simply receptive vocabulary size, bilingual children control a smaller vocabulary in the language of the community than do their monolingual counterparts” (Bialystok, 2012). They were able to find evidence from a study that showed both bilingual and monolingual children participating in a picture-naming task. The results showed bilingual children were slower and less accurate than the monolingual children. Similar results were found when testing comprehension and production of words, “even when bilinguals respond in their first and dominant language” (Bialystok, 2012). Bilingual students also showed a difficulty in verbal fluency tasks. These tasks are a useful neuropsychological measure of brain functioning while students are to come up with as many words as they can in one minute that, “conform to a phonological or semantic cue” (Bialystok, 2012). The performance reveals, “systematic deficits for bilingual participants, particularly in semantic fluency conditions even if responses can be provided in either language” (Bialystok, 2012). This shows that it was more difficult for bilingual children to retrieve their words.
With the coming of age, brings new development, science breakthrough, and greater debate. Groups of scientists, authors, linguists, and researchers have begun to debunk old theory and refuse to believe that bilingualism is a negative effect on a child’s cognitive development. In fact, they go on to retrieve evidence and new theories that pronounce bilingualism in childhood to be a huge benefit. Researchers are revealing that the previous studies of bilingualism (in above paragraphs) are unfair and inaccurate. Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert carried out their
research and found that bilingual children were outperforming monolingual children in all aspects and categories of tests, proving that bilingualism caused no mental degradation or development delay. They continue to push their ideologies saying that bilingual children even have a more diverse thought system and better metacognitive skills. Scientists explain, that, “monolinguals and bilinguals use similar neural regions for language processing” and that “bilinguals have greater grey matter density than monolinguals in certain left hemisphere regions” (Marian, 2009). This can help us understand that perhaps there is no observable delay if bilingual and monolingual acquisition is following the same pace. Researchers also have proven that early bilingualism improves cognitive skill and, “gives a flexibility that allows bilingual children to perform better in some tasks, such as categorizing and recognizing objects, than their monolingual counterparts” (Marian, 2009). They also review the topic of morphosyntax and the positive effects that bilingual students show, while also being extremely skilled in decoding and acquiring different aspects of grammer.
Studies are being done that show how bilingual children’s brains light up and are being more active than a monolingual child. Researchers are using brain imaging techniques like, “functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)” (Marian, 2012). They are used to investigate which brain regions are active when bilingual people complete tasks where they are asked to alternate between their two languages. It was shown, when bilingual children have to switch between naming pictures in Spanish and naming them in English, they show, “increased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)” (Marian, 2012) a brain region associated with cognitive skills like attention. Language switching has been found to involve such structures as, “the anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral supermarginal gyri, and left inferior frontal gyrus (left-IFG), regions that are also involved in cognitive control. The left-IFG in particular, often considered the language production center of the brain, appears to be involved in both linguistic and non-linguistic cognitive control” (Marian, 2012). With the innovation of science, researchers are able to look at the results and come to a better understanding that perhaps, bilingualism in children is a good thing in their cognitive development.
The study of bilingualism and its effects are everchanging for researchers, linguists, scientists, and more. But it is also a study that creates debate and differing opinion based on old research and new. It is important that sciences continue to develop more understanding on what really goes on in the bilingual brain along with how it compares to monolingual children; all of the good and all of the bad.
Bialystok, Ellen, Fergus I.M. Craik, and Gigi Luk. “Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16.4 (2012): 240–250. PMC. Web. 26 Mar. 2018.
Grosjean, F. (2011) What Are the Effects of Bilingualism?, Life as a Bilingual, Psychology Today, (16 June, 2011) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life- bilingual/201010/myths-about-bilingualism-0
Hamers, J. F. and Blanc, M. H. A. (1989) Bilinguality and Bilingualism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Marian, Viorica, and Anthony Shook. “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual.” Cerebrum: the Dana Forum on Brain Science 2012 (2012): 13. Print.
Nagy, Barbara. “The Effects of Early Bilingualism on Children’s Language Development.” (2013) Academia.edu – Share Research www.academia.edu/ The_Effects_of_Early_Bilingualism_on_Children_s_Language_Development.