Is bilingualism an advantage?
To date, more than 150 major research studies confirm the cognitive advantages of bilingualism.
These studies have found that bilingual students in additive bilingual contexts consistently outperform monolingual students in four key areas of thinking: cognitive flexibility, metalinguistic awareness, communicative sensitivity, and field independence.
Bilingualism also provides a wide range of other social, cultural, employment, and economic advantages.
Thinking in two languages
In contrast to the early research on bilingualism discussed in Is bilingualism a problem?, more than 150 major research studies now broadly conclude that when children continue to develop their abilities in two or more languages throughout their primary school years, they gain a deeper understanding of language and how to use it effectively. In other words, research since the 1960s has consistently found that bilingualism is a cognitive, social, and educational advantage and that, consequently, bilingual students tend to outperform their monolingual peers in key cognitive tasks. (See the video clip Advantages of bilingualism.) This positive view of bilingualism was first established by Peal and Lambert in the 1960s (see below) and is still held by today’s researchers in bilingualism.
When bilingual students are in additive bilingual contexts where their bilingualism is valued and used, they show definite advantages over monolingual students in the following four cognitive or learning areas:
- Cognitive flexibility: Bilingual people are more creative and flexible in their thinking.
- Metalinguistic awareness: Bilingual people demonstrate greater awareness of language and how it works.
- Communicative sensitivity: Bilingual people are more sensitive to nuances in communication.
- Field independence: Bilingual people are often able to orient themselves and detect hidden patterns and figures more easily.
Peal and Lambert’s (1962) research on French–Canadian children in Canada remains the most important of the studies highlighting the advantages of bilingualism. The researchers found that the French–English bilingual children in their study consistently outperformed monolingual children on a range of cognitive tasks. As a result, they suggested that bilingual students had a more diversified intelligence: “… a mental flexibility, a superiority in concept formation, and a more diversified set of mental abilities” (page 20).
1. Cognitive flexibility
There are two key areas related to cognitive flexibility. One is divergent thinking. This is often measured by providing a person with a starting point for thought and asking them to generate a whole series of permissible solutions. (For example, “Think of a paper clip and tell me all the things you could do with it.”) The other area is convergent thinking, which is measured by tests that provide a number of pieces of information a person must synthesise to arrive at the correct answer. Researchers report that bilingual people are consistently superior to their monolingual counterparts in both divergent and convergent thinking tests. (See Ricciardelli, 1992, for a useful review.)
2. Metalinguistic awareness
Metalinguistic awareness (MA) is the ability to analyse language, particularly language forms, in terms of how they work and how they are integrated into the wider language system. (See the video clip Metalinguistic awareness for examples of this process.) MA is, in effect, knowledge about language. It can be demonstrated at various levels: Phonological awareness (the understanding of sound units), word awareness, and syntactic (grammatical) awareness. Bilingual students may have greater MA because, in working with more than one language simultaneously, they need to have a greater awareness of how each language works and of how the two languages are both similar and, crucially, different. This, in turn, requires them to think about the language they choose to use. (See May, Hill, and Tiakiwai, 2004, for further discussion.)
3. Communicative sensitivity
Communicative sensitivity relates to participants’ level of awareness about what is going on in any particular language interaction. Bilingual people tend to be more communicatively aware because they are used to thinking about which language to use in which situation and to which person. They also have to pick up clues and cues about when to switch languages. The research literature suggests that this may give a bilingual person increased sensitivity to the social nature and communicative functions of language. (See the inquiries What is bilingualism? and Are languages linked?.)
4. Field independence
Field independence is the visual ability to see an overall pattern as well as its component parts. As children grow to maturity, they become more field independent. Bilingual students tend to be more field independent at a younger age.
What might these four cognitive abilities have in common?
Bialystok (1992) suggests that the common strand of these cognitive abilities is that bilingual people can perceive a situation or stimulus more analytically. They can focus on the key parts of a problem and select the crucial parts of a solution. They seem to apply this analytical skill in language, communication, thinking, and visual perception. This gives bilingual learners advantages in divergent and creative thinking, as well as in analysis.
Bialystock (1992) explains the analytical advantages bilingual students have:
Early experience with two languages may lead [bilingual learners] to develop more sensitive means for controlling attention to linguistic input. They are used to hearing things referred to in two different ways.
When teachers, students, and parents gain a shared understanding of the cognitive advantages of bilingualism, this is likely to help raise the scholastic achievement by Pasifika bilingual students. If the whole school community can work together to create strong additive bilingual contexts for these students, they are likely to gain the same cognitive, social, and educational advantages as the successful bilingual students who have been studied by researchers.
Other advantages of bilingualism
As well as the many cognitive benefits of bilingualism, there are also more wide-ranging advantages:
Bilingual people can communicate with a wider range of people within families and communities, across generations, and in other social contexts.
Being able to read and write in more than one language opens up new literatures, traditions, and ideas to bilingual students.
Being bilingual, and being exposed to two languages and cultures, often fosters greater tolerance for other cultural groups.
Knowing two languages makes it easier to learn additional languages.
Knowing two languages provides bilingual people with additional skills in the employment market – skills that are increasingly important in our globalised world.
When bilingual learners also become biliterate (that is, able to read and write well in two languages), they are known to achieve extremely well in education, often better than their monolingual peers. (See the inquiry Affirming biliteracy for further discussion.)