Bilingualism and Cognitive Development

Table of contents

I attempted to establish the effects that bilingualism has on the cognitive development of children, and whether children are effected positively or negatively. I reviewed a number of studies from different centuries to establish how the research has changed. I looked at methodologies, data sets and test used.

The most significant of my findings were that bilingual children had a cognitive advantage especially in regards to working memory and their ability to switch between tasks. I concluded from the review that bilingualism positively affects cognition however, only when it is acquired at a very young age. The effects of bilingualism continues into adulthood, and may reduce Alzheimer’s.


There is an ongoing debate about whether bilingualism has positive effects bilingually or has a negative effect. I firstly discuss the early research and their findings. I then look at the newer research and what the findings were.

Due to the vastly different findings I also investigated how the research was done in regards to methods, analysis and data sets. A number of different methods and considerations was used and later research were more sophisticated and thorough.

The relationship between bilingualism and cognitive development started in the 1920,s, with the early studies finding that bilingualism had negative influence on a child’s cognitive development. Interest on the exact effects of bilingualism and cognitive development really took off from 1962, when positive results were reported.

Regardless of all the research pointing to the , the debate is raging on, and there appears to be equal amounts of research pointing to positive and negative results. Researchers agree however, that bilingualism definitely affects cognitive development in children. Areas that are particularly influenced are IQ, cognitive functioning, language efficiency, communication and academic achievement.

Different studies produced widely different results as to what the exact influence of bilingualism is on cognitive development. Cummings and Swain (1987), mentioned several studies that found bilingual children actually performed worse academically in comparison with monolingual children. However, several cognitive advantages was reported as well. These advantages relate to linguistic skills, perceptual structures, social sensitivity and intellectual development.

Several aspects play a role in the positive and negative results that was reported. Positive results were especially related to children from a language group that was in the majority in a community. Negative effects were predominately found amongst children from minority language groups. Research also pointed to influence of the prestige and worth of the first and second language in the community. Children from higher socio-economic backgrounds, benefit more from bilingualism than those from more disadvantage communities ( Cummings and Swain, 1987).

Research points to a number of specific aspects of cognitive functioning, in which bilingual children performed better compared to monolingual children. The aspect of divergent thinking is especially important in this case. It points to the child’s ability to function in a creative, imaginative and open-minded way. It involves flexibility, originality and expansion of thoughts. The differences in divergent thinking between bilingual and monolingual children is apparent at the age of 9 years. Research shows that it might be due to the fact that the child have reached a certain threshold of ability in his or her second language when above mentioned cognitive abilities are present.

Researchers has indicated that the presence of a analytical orientation in relation to language is another cognitive benefit of bilingual children. It appears that bilingualism holds certain benefits in relation to the ways language is linked to thoughts. This points to the fact that bilingual children are more flexible in their thought processes. Ianco-Worrall (1972) made the assumption that bilingual children reached a certain level of semantic development two to three years before monolingual children. From an early age these children are aware that more than one word could refer to the same object. Therefore, bilingual children benefit due to the fact that they are aware of the languages forms and characteristics and are able to distinguish sounds and meaning from an early age.

Vygotsky (1987) has attempted to explain the apparent positive influence of bilingualism on the child, by stating that bilingualism allows a child to see his or her own language as one specific system among many other systems. The phenomenon of the language is placed in the more general categories and this leads to a heightened awareness of the languages’ linguistic processes.

Researchers attempts to explain bilingualism positive influences by referring to three hypotheses. They suggest that bilingual children are exposed to a greater number of experiences, due to the fact that they are functioning in two languages and possibly in two cultures. Further it could also be explained in terms of a switching mechanism therefore, the continues switching between the two languages require more flexibility in thought processes.

Finally, it can be assumed that children are involved in a process whereby they continuedly have to compare and contrast the two languages. Due to the increased requirements of their linguistic functioning, bilingual children will have to develop cognitively faster.

Researcher points to the fact that bilingual children has a heightened sense of communication, and are more sensitive to the tips that indicate how a question is formed and expressed. It appears that bilingual children has to be more aware of which language is more appropriate for their interpersonal communication in order to prevent interference from the two languages and to recognise tips that indicate which language will be more appropriate in the given situation. However research is still lacking in this area.

Research that investigates the link between intelligence and bilingualism is differs widely and can be divided into three categories: studies that highlighted negative effects, those that found positive effects and those that point to neutral effects. Those studies that indicates negative effects especially highlighted the long term, possibly irreversible degrading effects of bilingualism. Studies showing neutral effects, just pointed to the fact that there are neither positive nor negative effects.

Regardless of the possible benefits or disadvantages that bilingualism could hold in relation to the cognitive development of a child, the question remain as to way such differences are found. Existing literature agrees that language is primarily located in the left hemisphere of right handed people.

Hemisphere specification is however not exclusive and thus one hemisphere can do some of the primary functions of the other. Research points to the fact that children under five years tend to use their right hemisphere to handle language functioning. However, as children get older more hemisphere specification develops in relation to language and spatial functions. Mostly hemisphere specification is fully develop at the time a child reaches adolescence however, it is not always the case with bilingual children.

The literature points to the effect of publication bias, which refers to the fact that studies not showing significant result are less likely to be published. This could lead to a possible skewing of results when looking at the effect that bilingualism has on cognition. This issue can be addressed by doing a meta-analysis of research.

The earlier children acquired their second language, the more likely they are to have advances in cognitive development especially related to metacognition. Another aspect that the earlier research didn’t take note of is how bilingualism is affected by the geographical setting and attitudes of communities towards other languages.

The effect of the combination of languages were also looked at. Languages that both made use of the alphabet seemed to produce more positive results. Earlier research neglected to look at children under the age of 2 years. The new but limited research points to the advantage of bilingualism well before a child is able to communicate effectively ( Brito % Barr, 2012).

According to Baker (1988), research that found a positive link between IQ and bilingualism, was more sophisticated in the control of variables and the analysis. He is however, still convinced that these studies needs to be replicated with attention given to the participants, the nature of the relationship between cognitive development and the specific abilities of the kids.

Modern Research

A recent study has shown that bilingual babies from as young as 20 months, can accurately and successfully process two languages. The study also indicated the ability of these infants to distinguish between the words of these different languages, they know instinctively that words belong to two different languages ( Byers-Heinlein, Morin-Lessard and Lew-Williams, 2017)

The test used by the researchers replicated the conversion between the two languages, that is heard by children in bilingual communities on a daily basis. The participants were shown pictures of common objects along with hearing simple sentences in one language or a mixture of both languages. Another experiment they were exposed to a conversion between the two languages. The researchers acquired their results by measuring eye tracking, for example, how long a participant’s eyes stayed focused on the picture as well as measuring pupil reduction. Pupil reduction was measured as it takes place involuntary when the brain works hard and thus provides a measurement of cognitive engagement.

The results of this particular study revealed that the transition between two languages is linked to “processing cost”: when switching from one language to another there is involuntarily reduction of the pupils due to the fact that the processing requires greater cognitive engagement. In other words there seems to be no negative effects of bilingualism, but rather an efficient processing strategy. This strategy leads to an activation and prioritisation of the language that is heard at any given time.

The study points to the fact that children are not negatively affected by bilingualism but is rather advantaged cognitively by their bilingualism. It strengthens the notion that bilingual children has an advantage when required to switch from one task to the next. This indicates that the advantage of the bilingual children stems from the constant switching between the two languages.

New research points to the fact that bilingual adults develops a better cognitive control- the ability to shape thoughts and behaviour despite the ever changing environment- if they have spoken two languages from a young age. This is informative of the positive effect bilingualism has on cognitive development in children.

Research done recently indicates that bilingual children develops a more efficient working memory in comparison to monolingual children. Working memory involves the ability to retain information in the brain and to mentally manipulate the information. This skill is particularly useful when you need two add two numbers without the use of pen and paper. A important and well documented finding points to the fact that efficient working memory relates to reading comprehension.

New research done with babies indicates that 11 month old babies raised bilingually, has better developed executive functioning compared to babies raised with one language. This nullifies a claim that bilingualism confuses infants.

Modern research tends to include infants that were excluded from earlier research and also uses adult control groups. The use of adult control groups establishes the ongoing effects of bilingualism. These studies also takes into consideration the possible role of other different aspects for example, socio-economic status, geographic locations as well as attitudes toward bilingualism.

Test used in some of the studies does well to replicate everyday situations. The context of a study is important as different environments can impact results. Test done in classrooms yielded more positive results in comparison to laboratory settings.

Limitations of review

Whilst I aimed to identify and review all the studies related to this particular topic, it was not possible. Due to time constraints and studies that could have been missed, I can only report on the limited number of studies I were able to find and review.

I have not included informal research in my review, such as those presented at conferences, unpublished papers or studies in other languages.


After reviewing the literature I found that as the research progressed through the years, it became apparent that bilingualism impacted cognitive development positively. As the research became more sophisticated more accurate findings were reported, and the exact aspects of cognitive development that was enhanced were identified. Later research also answered the questions of how and why these positive aspects took place.

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