21,  Kognitivna psihologija

Bilingualism and Cognition

Since I was very young, I have always had an interest in different languages. As a child, I learned German and English, and later also French. I liked watching Spanish soap operas and soon enough I was able to understand some of the words and phrases they used (that is, of course, not to say I can speak, fluently, all of those languages). I have had an experience studying abroad for four years during primary and high school, and after returning to Slovenia, continued studying in English by being a part of the International Baccalaureate programme, which, all together, amounts to a total of six years of studying in the English language. Perhaps needless to say, it is quite easier for me to speak and write in English, which is also the reason this text is not in Slovene. Because of the afore-mentioned experiences, I have been curious about the phenomenon of bilingualism. When I started my research for this text, I was not quite sure whether I would fit into this category; more specifically, I was not sure of the definition of bilingualism (for example, some people may think in a certain language, but their mother tongue can be different). Therefore, in this text, I will first briefly discuss the definition of bilingualism and then continue with the connection between bilingualism and cognition.

As mentioned, it is often unclear who and what qualifies under bilingualism. In any given language, words are incorporated into a certain language from other languages, the origin of which, in our daily lives, we do not think about (such as coup or touché in English), but just knowing these words does not qualify under bilingualism (Bialystok, 2001). The issue of the definition (and for example, also the issue of different types: in terms of origin (also home arrangement) and reproduction ability, whether the languages are non-spoken languages, and whether the individual knows both languages equally well (Romaine, 1995 in: Bialystok, 2001; Dopke, 1992 in: Bialystok, 2001; Bialystok, 2001; Stranzy, 2005 in: Maftoon & Shakibafar, 2011)) of bilingualism is a very wide issue which could take up a whole article on its own if I were to try to tackle it scrupulously enough. I will therefore briefly summarise the conclusion brought forward by Bialystok, as well as some other authors (For more information, consider the article “Who Is a Bilingual?” by Maftoon & Shakibafar).

Although this is more a criticism of a definition than a definition on its own, it is important to note that, as Bialystok states, defining bilingualism is complex because: “At best, bilingualism is a scale, moving from virtually no awareness that other languages exist to complete fluency in two languages” (2001, p. 8). Mackey (2000 in: Maftoon & Shakibafar, 2011, p. 82) also stresses a similar point, stating that the use and knowledge of two languages is best described by the use of a continuum. Additionally, “the existing confusion over the concept of bilingualism is largely due to the difficulty of defining a threshold”. Some even go on to say that deciding on who to classify as bilingual is “elusive and ultimately impossible” (Baker, 2006 in: Maftoon & Shakibafar, 2011, p. 79).

Now that I have (very) succinctly dealt with the problem of defining bilingualism, I can move on to cognition. In general, it can be said that there is a reciprocal connection between language and thought. In one view, children attain concepts first, and then learn language to help them express these concepts (Clark, 1973, 1993 in: Bialystok, 2001), but according to a different view, children learn language first and the knowledge of language then helps them form conceptual categories (Pinker, 1984 in: Bialystok, 2001). However, it is now thought that both of these views are correct and that language and concepts complete each other and interact as children learn them together. This is because it has been found that the process of learning language and concepts (which fall under cognition) is found to be different in children that are learning conceptually different languages (such as English and Korean), which should not happen if there was a one-way influence from either cognition on language or language on cognition (because whichever of those was acquired first would be attained by all children regardless of the language they were learning; Bialystok, 2001). An example of this is the acquisition of spatial concepts, which are attained differently in English and Korean. In English, whether children choose “in” or “on” depends on the properties of the referent (attributes of containment or surface area properties). In Korean, however, whether children choose “in” or “on” depends on whether the relationship between the referent and the object is “tight-fitting” or “loose-fitting”, and the properties of the relationship do not matter (if the relationship is containment or surface attachment). Research that has been done on this topic has shown that children who learn either of these languages notice either surface properties or tight-loose relationships when using language, depending on the language that they are learning. These differences in use have been observed in both production and comprehension of the spatial terms by children less than two years old (Bavin, 1990; Choi & Bowerman, 1991; Choi et al., 1999 in: Bialystok, 2001).

Furthermore, a child who learns to speak a certain language employs different cognitive processes to understand and learn that language than a child who learns a different language (Bialystok, 2001). Choi (1997; p. 123 in: Bialystok, 2001, p. 190) further extends this argument by suggesting that from the start of the children learning a language, there is a close interaction between a child’s cognitive capabilities and the influence of “language-specific input” (words that children hear that are specific to a language). This has been shown in a specific study (Choi & Bowerman, 1991 in: Bialystok, 2001) where children who learned either English or Korean organized verb meanings differently according to their language because of the differences in morphology between the two languages. We can consequently infer that aspects of cognition are an essential part of learning grammar.

An interesting question, therefore, is if cognitive components develop together with linguistic components, how is this process different in bilinguals? Research has been done on the difference in different cognitive tasks (the sharing task, the towers task, cardinality task, card-sorting task; more in Bialystok, 2001) between monolingual and bilingual children that demonstrates this connection. What has been found is that bilingual children outperform monolinguals on tasks where inhibition of misleading information is required (also attentional control). An example of this is the grammaticality judgment task, where children are required to make a judgement (whether the sentence is grammatically correct or not) of a sentence in a misleading context (for example: “Why is the cat barking so loud?”), and bilinguals are better able to perform this task. However, according to Bialystok (2001), children do not have an advantage in analysis of information; more specifically, bilinguals do not solve problems that require higher analysis better than monolinguals. In fact, both groups, in several cases, solve problems that involve conflicting or misleading information at the same level. The determining factor of the case in which problems are solved better by bilinguals is when the conceptual demands on classification (in other words, the demands for analysis) were moderate. In other words, what the tasks which bilinguals solved better had in common was a misleading context and moderate demands for analysis. (Bialystok, 2001).

Moreover, it is important to note that the relationship between analysis and inhibition of misleading information is an interaction. “Neither factor alone sufficiently accounts for outcomes: statistically, there is no main effect. There is no evidence that bilinguals excel in the representation of complex information or that the simple requirement to switch attention or ignore misleading information inevitably leads to a bilingual advantage.” “Put in another way, a bilingual advantage in processing occurs as a function of an interaction between demands for representational analysis and demands for attentional control.” (Bialystok, 2001, p. 214).

However, a different view is presented by Hakuta & Diaz (1985 in: Bukatko & Daehler, 2004), who state that bilingual children are more “analytic and flexible in their approach to different types of thought problems” (Bukatko & Daehler, 2004, p. 263). An example of this is the comparison of performance of both types of children on tasks such as the Raven Progressive Matrices, where bilinguals typically outperform monolinguals. There are three possible reasons for the better performance of bilinguals. The first one is that bilingual children are made to think more abstractly and analytically due to their experience of constantly analysing the structure of two languages as opposed to only one. The second explanation is that bilingual children tend to be more oriented towards verbal expression in their thinking and tend to produce verbalisations in a way that improves their performance even on tasks that do not require verbalisations, and the third explanation is that they may have more cognitive control because they constantly have to inhibit one language as they speak in another. But whatever the mechanism, it seems as if speaking more than one language affects aspects of cognition in a positive way (Bukatko & Daehler, 2004).

A question that also rises in relation to bilingualism and cognition is whether learning another language at a young age contributes to greater intelligence of children. If I were to start with early research, I can say that a lot of it found that bilingual children scored lower on tests of intelligence compared to monolingual children (mentioned in Bialystok, 2001), but Peal and Lambert (1962 in: Bialystok, 2001, p. 187) later found in a study an opposite effect: bilingual children did better on virtually all intelligence tests, which they attributed to greater “mental flexibility” in these children (They designed the study to measure a broader concept than just the IQ of the children; they also looked for differences in the structure of intelligence: in the relationship among the intellectual skills that they were testing. With an advantage of bilinguals on verbal tests, they divided the non-verbal tests into two categories (spatial-perceptual and symbolic reorganization) and found that bilingual children had an advantage in the latter). However, the mentioned effect may be obfuscated by the fact that we cannot clearly tell whether the differences between monolingual and bilingual children are really due to knowing a second language, or whether they are simply the effect of a different cognitive ability between these children. Bialystok (2001, p. 188) further supports this by stating that while there may be specific aspects of cognitive processes in which bilinguals are different from monolinguals, generally speaking statements of “intellectual superiority” of bilinguals are insupportable. Bialystok (p. 218) states: “There is no reason to believe that bilingual children differ in intelligence from monolingual children, all else being equal.” Therefore, based on my previous discussion of attentional control, the primary difference between monolinguals and bilinguals is that attentional control seems to develop faster in bilinguals.

To conclude, more explanations for the difference in performance on some tasks and the lack of difference in performance on other tasks will potentially be found at the level of specific cognitive functioning and processes. Even Peal and Lambert (1962) have pointed out that an essential tool in understanding these patterns would be a very specific description of how cognitive functioning works (and not a judgment of “superior or inferior intelligence”; Bialystok, 2001, p. 211).

Some newer research also shows additional effects of bilingualism. A certain study, for example, (Bak, Nissan, Allerhand & Dreary, 2014) has also shown positive effects of bilingualism (or multilingualism) in relation to dementia: bilingualism is related to later onset of dementia, where knowing more languages has a better effect than knowing fewer. Further studies (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013) have shown several other benefits such as certain connections between bilingualism and the brain: that the bilingual brain is more resilient and efficient in certain contexts. Also, bilinguals, particularly older bilinguals, are supposedly more efficient at task-switching since they are used to switching between two languages when they are speaking, and this is similar to switching between non-verbal executive function tasks.

Even though I was not brought up in an English-speaking environment from a very young age, I still like to consider myself at least partly bilingual. If I were to add personal experience to this article, I would say that since starting my education in English, I have definitely observed changes in my thinking habits, but I am unsure if these effects are solely due to having learnt another language or something else entirely (perhaps the different educational systems?).

At this point, there are many interesting questions that could also be explored related to this topic, such as whether one can generalize these findings to learning language in adulthood or what the effect of being taught in a language one is not comfortable with on learning/exam performance is, but I will leave that for another time. This text already exceeds the word limit. But the bottom line is, teaching your children a foreign language, at this point, seems like a good idea.


Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Annals Of Neurology, 75(6), 959-963. doi:10.1002/ana.24158

Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy & Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bukatko, D. & Daehler, M. W. (2004). Child Development: A thematic approach. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kroll, J. F., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Understanding the consequences of bilingualism for language processing and cognition. Journal Of Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 497-514.

Maftoon, P. & Shakibafar, M. (2011). Who Is a Bilingual?. Journal of English Studies

*Opomba: Članek je objavljen v angleščini, ker je namenjen in želi doseči tudi druge jezikovne skupine (med njimi so tudi posamezniki, ki ne govorijo slovensko).