the effects of bilingualism

A new study explains why bilingual children perform better

Children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both, while adults often struggle with second language learning and rarely attain native-like fluency. With roughly two thirds of the world’s population estimated to understand or speak at least two languages, bilingualism has become the norm rather than the exception in many parts of the world.

Although some might be concerned that bilingualism puts children at risk for language delay or academic failure, research does not support this. To the contrary, studies consistently show that, besides the obvious practical and economic gains, bilingualism leads to a number of cognitive advantages. Emerging research supports the view that the capacity to learn language can be equally applied to two languages as to one.

A recent study conducted by the University of Washington (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences) compares the major milestones in bilingual and monolingual language acquisition, outlines the reasons behind the frequently observed variability in bilingual language learning, and describes the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Here are the main outcomes.

the effects of bilingualism

1- Language learning in the first year of life

Until about 6 months of age, infants are capable of hearing the differences between the consonants and vowels that make up words universally across all languages. By 12 months of age, discrimination of sounds from the infant’s native language significantly improves, while discrimination of non-native sounds declines (Kuhl et al., 2006). Infants’ initial universal ability becomes more language specific, like that of an adult, by 12 months of age.

Research shows that the infant brain is more than capable of learning two languages simultaneously. Young children learn language rapidly; however, the quality and quantity of language they hear plays a key role in the learning process. One study shows that infants exposed to a new language at 9 months of age in play sessions by a live tutor learn in just 6 hours to discriminate foreign language sounds at levels equivalent to infants exposed to that language from birth. However, no learning occurs if the same material on the same schedule is presented via video or audiotapes (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003). Thus, early language learning is critically dependent on social interactions, and on the quality of speech that children hear.

Taken together, in monolingual and bilingual children alike, language growth reflects the quality and quantity of speech that infants hear. Young infants learn best through frequent, high-quality, social interactions with native speakers.

the benefits of bilingualism

2- Vocabulary and grammatical development

Young children exposed to two languages from birth typically begin producing their first syllables and their first words at the same age as children exposed to a single language. Furthermore, the bilingual course of vocabulary and grammatical growth looks very much like the trajectory followed by monolingual children; the kinds of words children learn, and the relationship between vocabulary and grammatical growth in each language replicate the monolingual pattern.

Nevertheless, the effect of bilingual experience on language production and comprehension is often reported as a lag in vocabulary and grammatical acquisition. Although some studies have shown that bilingual children are within monolingual norms for the age at which they achieve basic vocabulary and grammatical milestones of language development, several studies report that bilinguals control a smaller vocabulary in each language than monolinguals, and lag behind on grammatical measures when skills are measured on a single language (Hoff et al., 2012). Given the extensive research showing that children’s language skills reflect the quantity of language that they hear, these findings are not surprising. Bilinguals split their time between two languages, and thus, on average, hear less of each language. Importantly, however, studies consistently show that bilingual children do not lag behind monolingual peers when both languages are considered. For example, bilingual vocabulary sizes, when combined across both languages, are equal to or greater than those of monolingual children. Similar findings are reported on measures of grammatical knowledge.

3-Learning to read

Reading is a complex process acquired through explicit training, typically after a child has learned to speak in full sentences. Studies with monolingual children demonstrate the critical role of oral language in reading and academic success. Thousands of U.S. children find themselves in situations where they must acquire the fundamentals of reading in a language that they do not speak, or where their linguistic knowledge is extremely poor. Not surprisingly, studies often report that bilingual immigrant children perform worse than monolingual English children in reading acquisition. However, research demonstrates that exposure to two languages increases phonological awareness, which is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sound units of language and is one of the best predictors of reading ability.

the benefits of bilingualism

4-Cognitive benefits of bilingualism

Contrary to the once held concern that bilingualism causes confusion, research shows that simultaneous exposure to two languages is related to several cognitive benefits. Part of the concern about confusion arises due to “code mixing” or “code switching.”

Bilingual children occasionally combine words or phrases of both languages when interacting with their peers, parents of teachers. It is important to understand that code switching is natural for bilingual adults and children and reflects the fact that bilinguals often know certain words better in one language than in the other. Code switching in bilingual adults and children is rule governed, not haphazard, and bilingual children follow the same principles as bilingual adults (Paradis, Nicoladis, & Genesee, 2000).

Rather than causing confusion, it is now understood that the constant need to manage attention between two languages fosters children’s thinking about language per se, and leads to increased metacognitive and metalinguistic skills (Bialystok, 2007). Bilingual infants as young as 7 and 12 months have been shown to be more flexible learners of language patterns compared to monolingual infants (Kovacs & Mehler, 2009). Bilingual toddlers exhibit a prolonged period of flexibility in their interpretation of potential words (Graf Estes & Hay, 2015), and bilingual 2- and 3-year-olds are more flexible learners of additional labels for previously known actions or objects, whereas monolingual children often find it difficult to learn labels for actions or objects that already have a name (Yoshida, 2008).

A growing body of evidence also suggests that bilinguals exhibit enhancements in executive functioning, which have been observed in children, young adults and middleaged and older adults (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). The primary processes of the executive functioning systems are switching attention, flexible thinking (cognitive flexibility), and updating information in working memory. Bilingualism requires the constant managing of attention to the target language. Research suggests that experience with two languages enhances the relevant brain networks, making them more robust for executive functioning throughout the lifespan. Interestingly, the accumulating effect of dual language experience translates into protective effects against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease (Craik, Bialystok, & Freedman, 2010). Recent brain studies indicate that differences between monolinguals and bilinguals in executive functioning are present at an early age (Ferjan Ramírez et al., 2016), and persist throughout the school years (Arredondo et al., 2016) and into adulthood (Abutalebi et al., 2011; Stocco & Prat, 2014).


the benefits of bilingualism


A growing body of research indicates that the experience of bilingualism alters not only the scope of language acquisition and use, but also a broader scope of cognitive processing from a very young age onward. Bilingual children perform equally well or better than monolinguals when both languages are considered. Studies suggest that optimal learning is achieved when children start learning two languages at an early age (i.e. between birth and 3 years of age) through high-quality interactions with live human beings, and both languages are supported throughout the toddler, preschool, and school years. Supportive environments for bilingual learning encourage parents and caregivers to use the language in which they are most fluent and comfortable, value both languages equally, and view bilingualism as an asset that brings about important cognitive, social, and economic benefits.





Why bilingualism is good for your brain

Today, more than half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. There are obvious advantages to being bilingual, such as the ability to communicate with people from all over the world- for business or simply pleasure. But above and beyond the social benefit, scientific research has revealed the beneficial impact bilingualism has on the brain. VivaLing offers you an inventory of the latest scientific discoveries.


1- Bilingual children are more attentive and concentrated


Bilingual children are able to focus on a specific goal and inhibit disruptive elements. This was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Diane Poulin-Dubois (Concordia University in Montreal) in 2010. The difference between bilingual children and monolingual children is that the frontal lobe, the part of the brain which is used for complex cognitive processes such as planning or deductive reasoning, is more active in bilingual brains.


2- Bilingualism helps develop adaptability


In 1999, Ellen Bialystok (York University in Toronto) demonstrated that bilingualism promotes  adaptability in early childhood. In her experiment, the researcher formed two groups of children: monolinguals and bilinguals, aged up to  5 years old. Each child had to classify cards with red or blue, circles or squares, firstly by shape and subsequently by color. The outcome was that the bilingual children performed better than the monolingual children. The latter, disturbed by the change of instructions (moving the classification from form to color), were less able to adapt.


3- Bilingualism can delay the onset of mental illness

In 2010, researchers from the York University in Toronto studied 211 patients with dementia.  They specifically analyzed the history of the disease (the age from which it occurred, the different stages of aggravation, etc.) and the level of the patients’ education (including the mastery of two or more languages). Data analysis showed that in multilingual patients the disease occurred 4.3 years later than in monolingual patients. Another study published in the Neurology  journal in 2013 confirmed these results. On average bilingualism delays the onset of diseases like Parkinson or Alzheimer, for 4-5 years. Intense cerebral activity maintains “cerebral play” thus delaying neurological degeneration.


4- Bilingual children are more creative

In a 2010 study in Israel, bilingual and monolingual children, aged between 4 and 5,  were asked to draw either a house or a fantasy flower. Examination of the drawings showed that the bilingual children were more imaginative, more creative, and had a better mastery of abstract concepts.

5- Bilingualism improves planning and problem-solving skills

In 2015, Spanish researchers highlighted the fact that people with two languages ​​perform complex, cognitive tasks, executive control functions such as planning and reasoning, more quickly and efficiently. In general, neuropsychologists agree that bilingualism increases the performance of the cognitive system’s executive functions, all processes involving attention, selection, inhibition, change, etc. Bilingualism creates new connections within the brain. With a more advanced development capacity, bilingual children have the ability to understand and move more easily from one subject to another. Hence the importance of developing bilingualism from an early age in order to acquire facilities in other fields later on.

AEDI Synapses function of age

Why children learn better: science is shedding light

The man on the street has noticed it and science has confirmed it: children are more able to learn foreign languages and achieve high proficiency than adults. What are the reasons? All else being equal, neurology and psychology will provide us with the answers.

Neurological explanations address the state of the brain and its ability to carry out a given task at a certain stage of its development. Several hypotheses were explored as early as the 60ies. One dealt with brain maturation: the brain was thought to be like a slate of clay which, once carved with the mother tongue, could neither be erased nor re-written nor complemented by a foreign language. Another explanation, focusing on native language interference, claimed that once the mother tongue had been acquired, the learning mechanism itself was completely dismantled in order to reallocate neural tissues – a scarce resource – to other tasks. It is known today that some of these extreme explanations are wrong and others, incomplete and oversimplifying.

However, other age-related phenomena affecting foreign language learning are now much better known. The first one is the decrease of brain plasticity over time. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the changes in neural pathways brought about by environmental or experiential stimuli. Each new learning (be it knowledge or skill) triggers new brain circuitry creation so as to transfer and process the information. Conversely, unused connections are disposed of in order to optimize the brain functioning and performance. At birth, each neuron (and there are about 100 billion of them) has 2500 synapses enabling neural connections. At age 2-3, the number of synapses per neuron increases to … 15000, that is to say twice the average adult number. In fact, by neural pruning, synaptic density progressively decreases from mid-childhood and teenagehood onwards, at a pace specific to each brain area. In addition, myelination (the sheathing of axons) reinforces the effectiveness of existing neural connections but is detrimental to the brain’s flexibility to set up new neural pathways. Specialization of brain areas to specific and precise functions carries on. Neuroplasticity inexorably decreases with brain maturation. Processes like language learning enjoy a privileged window of opportunity after basic sensory functions and before higher cognitive functions.

Hensch - Brain plasticity

Based on brain plasticity, learning goes through successive sensitive periods focused on: senses during early childhood, language and motor functions during childhood, and later higher cognitive functions (maths, critical thinking, etc…) (credit : adapted from Hensch, 2005, Nature Reviews Neuroscience)


David Birdsong, one of the current leading researchers on effects of age of acquisition, identifies other sources as well. Firstly, the widespread decline of cognitive capabilities with age is a regular phenomenon that does not spare language learning. Secondly, interference of the native tongue probably increases with age – age being a proxy of usage of this language. Last, according to psycho-linguists, Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device –giving access to Universal Grammar –, or any other language-specific acquisition mechanism, seems to disappear with age.

Socio-psychological reasons are completely different in nature but no less significant. Children do not feel embarrassed by novelty, since everything is new and consequently nothing is really abnormal. New sounds, even when very different from the mother tongue’s, are not frightening. Children utter them convincingly whereas adults might hesitate to stress them as strongly – they are so “weird”! More importantly still, children will not shy away from trying even if not completely sure, from having a go even if they are mistaken and must start again. Besides, other children will not be critical of the mistakes, at least not in the same proportions. As for adults, they might fear that their social status – which comes across so naturally in their mother tongue – could be degraded by an incomplete command of the other language. To make a long story short, social self-awareness sometimes plays against language learning by adults.


Regardless of the quality of the learning environment – this topic will be addressed at a later stage –, children are more able to learn foreign languages  than adults  because of neurological and socio-psychological reasons. This is why one should make the most of sensitive period of childhood – it is so favourable !

Portrait of smart schoolgirls and schoolboys looking at the laptop in classroom

Will your child forget a language learnt in his early childhood?

Portrait of smart schoolgirls and schoolboys looking at the laptop in classroom

What will be left? This is the recurring – and a little anxious – question being asked by parents about the languages learned by their children during infancy or early childhood, especially when these languages are not practiced thereafter.

We already wrote a blog post on this topic that many of you read. The conclusion, based on a study of C. Landing from 2003, seemed clear: a language learned in childhood can be forgotten as quickly as it is learned if it is not used or at least kept after puberty.

And yet, the fine interpretation of the results of this study has been questioned by many other publications. At the end of 2014, J. Pierce of McGill University in Canada demonstrated for the first time that the neural representation of a language acquired in early childhood was firmly rooted in the brain, even if the subject had no conscious memory of that language after having no exposure at all for a long time.


The demonstration was made with Chinese orphans adopted at the age of 13 months by French families, and completely cut off from their original language. 12 years later, although they had no conscious memory of their language, their brains responded to the tonal system of the Chinese language just as Chinese native speakers. Indeed, while listening to phonemes pronounced with different tones, their brain was using language centres located in the left hemisphere. In comparison, a control group of French children was using acoustic processing functions able to analyse non-linguistic complex signals in the right hemisphere of their brain.

Is having a brain that seems to keep memories of a past language of which the subject has no conscious recollection really useful? Yes, as Leher Singh from the National University of Singapore wrote in 2011. She was also interested in orphans, this time from the Indian subcontinent, adopted in their infancy by American families and completely cut off from their original language. Indian languages contain phonetic contrasts on “t” and “d” that are imperceptible to the ears of Americans. Many years after their change of continent, these little adopted children didn’t seem to be able to perceive these contrasts. At least initially. However, after one month of exposure, the adopted children had made considerable progress in the discrimination of these sounds, in comparison to a control group of young Americans.


So here is what science teaches us to date:
• around the age of one year, the infant’s brain loses forever the ability to discriminate sounds (consonants, vowels, tones) absent from its own language or its linguistic environment. To perceive contrasts from other languages, a child must be exposed to them during this critical “Phonetic period,” around the age of one year.
• Not being exposed to the language of origin does not mean that this language will be completely forgotten. Its traces remain unconscious, neurologically, which significantly facilitate the learning.

Consequently, one should not hesitate to expose his child to one or more target languages while still a baby, even if these languages are not used immediately or intended to be relearned later. This is an investment that can be made only at this critical period of life. Almost all parents ignore that. Not you.

For more information:

Lara J. Pierce, Denise Klein, Jen-Kai Chenc, Audrey Delcenseried, Geneseea and Fred (2015). Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language. PNAS, 112, February 2015.

Leher Singh, Jacqueline Liederman, Mierzejewski Robyn and Jonathan Barnes (2011). Rapid reacquisition of native phoneme contrasts after-disuse: you do not always lose what you do not use. Journal of Developmental Science. 14(5), 949-959.

Pallier C, et al. (2003). Brain imaging of language plasticity in adopted adults: Can a second language replace the first? Cereb Cortex 13 (2), 155-161.


Perceiving sound contrasts : before 1 year of age, or never

Babies are born universal listeners. In the first months of their lives, they can discriminate all the sounds produced by human beings. It is no small feat: you and I cannot. A typical Japanese adult is unable to hear the difference between an English /l/ and /r/. A typical English adult cannot detect the nuance between Mandarin /ɕ/ and /t͡ɕ/. The various /k/ and /q/ sounds in native American languages are not discriminated by non-Indian American adults. And Catalan mid-vowel contrasts (/e/, /ɛ/) are difficult to perceive even for adult Castilian-speaking Spaniards.

Babies keep listening. And while listening, their brains take statistics on the languages spoken in their environment. What happens towards the age of 1 is an incredible linguistic transformation. Babies get better at discriminating the sounds of their own language (native contrasts); but they completely and irremediably lose the ability to detect the sound differences present in other languages but irrelevant to theirs (non-native contrasts). The age of this transformation is known as the critical phonetic period. It is the clearest of all language critical periods.

Incredibly, before they reach that period, babies can be trained in other languages. In her memorable 2010 TED Talk, Patricia Kuhl describes how twelve sessions delivered by a Mandarin speaker to American babies had the same effect as ten and a half months of native Mandarin speaking on Taiwanese babies: at the end of the experiment the two groups were equally good at the perception of Mandarin contrasts.

Two more miracles are to be highlighted. First, the baby brain is a social one. If the baby is exposed to other languages’ sound contrasts by a recording, be it a full video or just an audio track, their performance is as bad as if there had been no training at all. But if the baby is trained by a living person, then the capability to perceive contrasts becomes as good as if the baby had been a native speaker. Sarah Roseberry, a  researcher in Patricia Kuhl’s lab, demonstrated in 2011 that the social impact is felt irrespective of the person’s physical presence or not : a Skype-like online, synchronous video interaction will have the same effect.

The second miracle is how adults could figure out whether babies perceive or not the sound contrasts. Babies, obviously, cannot speak, do not understand what the researchers are looking for and could not express consciously the results anyway. In a 2009 video, Derek Houston summarizes three common methodologies historically used to investigate infant speech discrimination skills :

–          High Amplitude Sucking (HAS) : sensors measure the amplitude and speed at which a baby sucks a pacifier. When different sounds are played (and perceived as different) the sucking response changes.

–          Conditional Head Turns (CHT) : the baby is taught to turn their head when they get a specific signal, in this case when they hear a sound contrast. If they do not turn their head it means they cannot hear a sound contrast.

–          Visual Habituation Methods (VHM) : when habituated to a given sound, babies’ looking time at a visual display tends to decrease. A sudden increase means babies have detected a novel sound.

Today scientists increasingly resort  to electrophysiological and neural imaging techniques, as mentioned in Kuhl’s video. This gives us a direct glimpse at what is happening inside the brain, and whether or not sound contrasts are perceived.


For more information :

Houston, D. M., Horn, D. L., Qi, R., Ting, J. Y. and Gao, S. (2007) : Assessing Speech Discrimination in Individual Infants. Infancy, 12: 119–145

Kuhl, P. K., Tsao. F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 9096-9101


10 good reasons to learn foreign languages

  • Discover Oneself

There is often a language that plays a special role in a family’s history. This language is that of the local land, forefathers and roots, culture or religion, or even in-laws. You may have come across this little child whose family immigrated one generation ago. For lack of a common language, she cannot communicate with her grand-parents who stayed back in their country. As she grows older, more and more questions come to her mind. By learning her parents’ language, she will also discover the culture and the country of her ancestors, and better understand where she comes from.

  • … and discover the Other

You may be in a large city or a small village, in the desert or the jungle, in an office or on the beach, abroad or in your own country. When the Other sees how you make the effort to address them in their own language, they will turn their head towards you, stare at you and start smiling. Whether your accent is barely detectable or clearly audible, whether your grammar is already perfect or still perfectible, the Other is moved by your respectful behaviour. They relax, open up, ready to share more personal thoughts now that a psychological filter has been removed. Language knowledge is an invaluable gate-opener towards the Other.


Nelson Mandela on Language


  • Go on a trip

Be it for holidays, a stopover or a business trip, knowing the local language can change drastically your experience. Not knowing the language, have you ever been hostage to the exclusive grip of a guide monopolizing all exchanges with the outside world? Have you ever seen foreigners fall prey to a complete misperception of the host country because they could not communicate? Conversely, has the local language never made contact with locals, planned or not, much easier? It will sometimes enable you to find your way, have dinner at night, even get your passport back or go through customs.

  • … or go for good

Between 1990 and 2010, about 160 million migrants changed countries. Do you happen to be one of them? Whatever the reason to migrate, it is life-changing. Having a good command of the host language is a pre-requisite to social and economic integration. In some countries being granted a visa –let alone citizenship- is subject to a minimum level in the host country’s language. Parents sometimes struggle and prior knowledge of the language is a decisive advantage; children usually adjust much quicker and soon surpass their parents.


Global Migrations 2005-2010 (credit Abel, Sander et al)

Global Migrations 2005-2010 (credit Abel, Sander et al)


  • Be successful at one’s career

As globalization increases, there are few jobs and positions left that do not require at least one, maybe two or even three foreign languages. English has become the unchallenged lingua franca of science. In business, one of the job interviews could take place in a foreign language. Language skills will enable the applicant to stand out from multiple candidates with similar résumés, if she manages to put forward her knowledge of Japanese, Spanish or Bahasa at the right moment. As for incumbent employees, some see their career development hampered by their weaknesses in international communication.

  • … and start by succeeding in one’s studies

The role of languages at school increases as that in life. In Singapore for instance, pupils take one of the two most important exams of their lives at the end of Primary School; half of the subjects are languages –English and their mother tongue. Elsewhere in the world, language level might decide which high school students will attend, impact significantly the matriculation results or give a huge edge in a University application file.

ScreenHunter_136 Mar. 30 21.43

The language section of a resume found on LinkedIn, exceptional yet increasingly common



  • Live better, live longer

Language practice shares cerebral mechanisms with those involved in old-age neurological diseases. Thus it has been noted that Alzheimer’s disease sets off on average five years later for bilinguals than for monolinguals. Do your linguistic gym and live better!

  • … and increase your cognitive capabilities

Knowing several languages is the ability to switch from one to another by focusing on the language used while ‘inhibiting’ the others. Multi-linguals resort to this capability even in non-linguistic fields. They demonstrate a bigger intellectual flexibility, a better ability to deal with ambiguity or apparent contradiction, and can cope with information while ignoring unnecessary or spurious signals.

factorial-task (credit

Bilinguals are more successful than monolinguals at classical Strimulus Response tests where the stimulus contains conflicting elements to be processed or ignored (credit


  • Marvel at other languages

You may be amongst those passionate people for whom discovering any new language triggers jubilant amazement. What sounds has this new language produced? What ingenuity will it come up with to convey such or such concept? Will it be isolating, flectional, agglutinative? How will it address, for instance, the possessive, given that some languages will alter the possessor and others the possessed, or both, or neither, some resorting to an affix, others to a particle, and others still elegantly doing without any grammatical appendix? Isn’t it extraordinary that the French version of this post should have 5368 characters in 1006 words, the English one 4978 characters in 980 words, and the Chinese one only 2174 Chinese characters?

  • …and understand better one’s own language

One’s mother tongue remains for very long the obvious response, the one found without having to look for it, the only possible option that no one even thinks of challenging. But opening up to a second language puts things in perspective. Without a doubt an additional language enables to further one’s native language knowledge. The language structure that such and such language has adopted becomes more palatable when compared to others: the origin of words is unveiled, roles in the sentence take shape and the meaning of words is refined. If shadow and shade have the same translation in French, does it not prove blatantly that ombre has two distinct meanings? Even the infamous agreement of the French past participle when used with the avoir auxiliary can be better understood if one is introduced to the Hindi ergative.

Levels of language structure (credit

Various levels of language structure : Phonology – Morphology – Syntax – Semantics – Pragmatics (credit


And what are YOUR reasons?