Is the Hype on Bilingualism Valid?


Is the Hype on Bilingualism Valid?

Headlines on the benefits of Bilingualism have been prolific over the past few years. Such benefit claims include that bilinguals are better at multitasking, smarter and have better executive functioning.”  So, when I heard NPR’s recent segment that highlighted the inconsistencies in the studies examining the benefits of bilingualism, I wanted to take a closer look at what we really do know about bilingualism and its benefits.

Both NPR and Scientific American Mind recently reported that the major studies which had catapulted bilingualism into the mainstream news media and, therefore, into the consciousness of our society, were not successfully replicated over and over again.  Indeed, they drew attention to the fact that many other studies conducted on this subject found inconclusive evidence that bilinguals had any cognitive advantage whatsoever over monolinguals in executive functioning (1, 2). Due to inconclusiveness findings, such studies were likely to never be published; whereas those that demonstrated a positive benefit were.  Nonetheless, the neglect of reviewing such studies in context with the others does pose an important issue concerning our rush to embrace positive findings too quickly.

In light of this information, should we conclude bilingualism offers no cognitive advantage? No, absolutely not. We must understand that the study on bilingualism is still in its infancy and many things do remain unclear. However, we can focus on the things that we do know to help us navigate any areas of uncertainty.  For example, we know that bilingualism exercises the brain’s cognitive skills and therefore does provide some known cognitive benefits. Are these cognitive benefits equal or greater than other activities that also exercise the brain such as playing strategy games like chess and playing music?  That we do not know.  What we do know is that like all activities that engage the brain, the more one is engaged in those activities, the more one benefits.  This also holds true for bilingualism.  The more someone speaks both languages daily, the more they exercise their brain by switching from one language to the other.  Moreover, the one advantage that bilingualism does seem to have over the other activities is that language is our main form of communication which we use daily throughout the day.  Thus, one who is engaged in both languages daily will receive more cognitive benefits (3).

Other things we know about bilingualism are:

1) Bilinguals have larger areas in certain regions of the brain.

2) Bilinguals activate different parts of their brain when communicating.

3) The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is delayed in bilinguals compared to monolinguals.

4) Age related cognitive decline is less in bilinguals than it is in monolinguals (3).

5) Bilingual two-way educational programs tend to outperform their monolingual counterparts (4).

So, while scientists may not successfully replicate studies that show a cognitive advantages in bilingualism, it would be remiss to say that bilingualism doesn’t offer cognitive benefits when the evidence is clear that it does.

On the other hand, focusing purely on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism can also make us lose sight of other and possibly even more important benefits of bilingualism.  Being connected to your cultural language, connecting with others from different cultures, creating social and economic opportunities and seeing oneself as a global citizen are all valuable benefits.  Consequently, these types of benefits go beyond our individual cognitive skills and expand into the social, emotional and economic connections that tie us all closer together for a healthier functioning society. Thus, the question whether or not bilingualism has any advantage seems to be very clear when you look at the what it provides individuals and society as a whole.  The answer is a resounding “Yes.”

1. Bilingual Studies Reveal Flaw on How Studies Reach Mainstream. NPR.

2. Publication Bias May Boost Findings for Bilingual Brain Benefits. December 30, 2014.

3. The Latest Research on Bilingualism and the Brain.  The Diane Rehm Show. December 16, 2014.

4. Bilingual Two-Way Immersion Programs Benefit Academic Achievement.  By Marian, Viorica; Shook, Anthony; Schroeder, Scott R.  Bilingual Research Journal, 36, 167-186, 2013.