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
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,
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
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
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
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, 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.
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/