Language myths: Bilingualism rots the brain

Introduction

If you’ve got children, you’ll probably have been told that raising them bilingual will be a useful advantage, with the potential of facilitating many opportunities throughout life that monolinguals don’t have access to. However, this has not always been the accepted point of view. Throughout history, bilingualism has been historically seen as a handicap by the west, often akin to a mental handicap; many researchers claimed that being bilingual slowed the minds of children and that they would never be able to achieve the same level of intelligence as their monolingual counterparts (Kaplan, 2016). For the purposes of this report, ‘bilingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ will both mean ‘a person who speaks several languages’, rather than the more restrictive ‘a person who speaks two languages’. This report seeks to debunk the myth that bilingualism has negative effects on intelligence levels in speakers.

A paradigm shift

So, why the shift in attitudes? How could bilingualism go from universal ridicule, with warnings of childhood retardation and split personalities, to something regarded as so important that UNESCO has said that bilingualism should be encouraged “at all levels of education” (UNESCO, 02 November 2001). The answer may lie in the definition of intellectualism. What may be considered an example of intelligence in one context, may be considered quite the opposite in a different context; as earlier studies on bilingualism’s effects on intelligence failed to take this in to account, they may have falsely attributed a lack of intelligence to bilingualism that may have been caused due to bias or a failing of the study itself (Hakuta and Suben, 1985).

It was not until the mid-twentieth century that this shift in attitudes towards the intelligence of bilinguals started to take place; a study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert compared French-English bilinguals in Canada with monolinguals with a multitude of tests, and showed that the bilinguals scored higher on IQ tests than their monolingual counterparts (Grosjean, 2012). So, why the change? You’d be hard-pressed to find many reasonable academics or teachers that would claim that bilingualism is anything but an advantage. The change is due to the way the studies were realised, with failings to control for variables such as socioeconomic factors, including class (Kaplan, 2016). These variables were controlled in Peal and Lambert’s study (Kaplan, 2016).

Size of the lexicon

One interpretation of the definition of ‘intelligence’ within bilingual children is the rate of language acquisition; an assumption could be made that a more limited vocabulary is a symptom of low intelligence. A common thought is that bilinguals acquire language at a lower rate than monolinguals (Grosjean, 2012). However, as bilingual children begin the important language-acquisition-events, such as the ‘babbling’ process and first word process, amongst others, at the same time as their monolingual counterparts (Grosjean, 2012), this is clearly a misconception. This would seem in stark contrast to the notion of a lowered intelligence level.

This is not to say, however, that this is considered a universal truth amongst the academic community. Some studies have concluded that bilinguals control a smaller vocabulary in each respective language than monolinguals have in one language (Bialystok, 2009), but, whether it is appropriate to consider a more limited vocabulary as lower intelligence could be considered a matter of opinion. Despite this, most recent academic research would support the claim that bilingualism does not impede intelligence (Kaplan, 2016).

Bilingualism and its positive cognitive effects

It is undeniable that language and intelligence are closely linked. As language-speakers grow older, they may find that their cognitive functions begin to slow, word recollection starts to falter, and faster speech becomes increasingly unintelligible (Grosjean, 2012). However, according to recent studies, elderly bilingual speakers show a later onset of cognitive slowing associated with ageing, with multilingual speakers having the highest cognitive ability measured when compared against a group of monolingual speakers (Kavé et al., 2008). This would provide further evidence to put into doubt the findings of studies of the early twentieth century that stated that bilinguals have lower cognitive ability when compared with their monolingual counterparts.

Conclusion

In conclusion, from combining the failures by academics to implement proper control methods within their studies to control for socioeconomic and other external factors (Kaplan, 2016), with the fact that many American studies were influenced by heavy nationalistic and racial biases within researchers (Hakuta and Suben, 1985), and the fact that modern research shows evidence contrary to earlier studies – that bilinguals actually have a higher cognitive ability than monolinguals (Kavé et al., 2008), I find the notion that bilingualism can impede cognitive development to be largely fallacious, based mostly on failings and biases of researchers at the time.

References:

Bialystok, E. (2009) Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 12 (1), pp.3.

Grosjean, F. (2012) Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Hakuta, K. and Suben, J. (1985) Bilingualism and Cognitive Development. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. 6 (March 1985), pp.35.

Kaplan, A. (2016) Women talk more than men: And Other Myths about Language Explained. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kavé, G., Eyal, N., Shorek, A. and Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2008) Multilingualism and cognitive state in the oldest old. Psychology and Aging. 23 (1), pp.70.

UNESCO (02 November 2001) UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Available from: http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13179&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html [Accessed 04 November 2017].

Also published here: https://uwelingo.wordpress.com/2018/02/23/language-myths-bilingualism-rots-the-brain/

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