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Cognitive Advantages of Bilingualism


Bilingualism is a global phenomenon that has occurred basically due to migration and the choice of individuals, who are mostly parents, to move from one country to another for economic and, sometimes, political reasons. Bilingual students encounter difficulties aside from learning the usual formal lessons in school. The English teacher has to help with various tasks aside from learning the language. And because of this phenomenon, a lot of researches and empirical studies have been conducted over the years.

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Theorists and social scientists collaborate to come up with studies and results to help bilinguals. This paper asks, what are the problems bilinguals face? Do they have difficulty in acquiring the second language considering that many did not have the choice of maintaining the dominant language which was their native language? Lastly, do bilinguals have the advantage over monolinguals when it comes to learning the language or having skills and abilities out of their being bilinguals?

The Research

In Lightbown and Spada (2006: 1), it says: “One remarkable thing about first language acquisition is the high degree of similarity in the early language of children all over the world.” This goes to all babies of human beings throughout the world. The question is “Is this true for second language acquisition?” Meaning, do bilinguals or children of bilinguals have the same similarity of learning the second language? The answer to this question can be as vague or as valid as anybody else’s because when it comes to first and second language acquisition, there have been countless studies and researches on the subject. And out of a particular study, also come interconnecting studies and never-ending questions on the intricacies of bilingualism.

There have been questions and what looked like myths on the subject of language acquisition. Bilingualism was thought to have given untold difficulties to bilinguals especially to those who are children of immigrants. But results of recent and present studies, which may have dated from the 1960s, or even earlier, tell otherwise.

Lighbown and Spada (183) suggest that “imitation may be an individual learning strategy but it is not a universal characteristic of language learners.” This means that in the person is the innate capability to know language even without imitation, although imitation is still the number one tool for the baby or child to learn words and sentences. There are other startling facts on the topic of language, and we can go on and go on. Our topic however will focus on some scientific findings of experts. One of these is Ellen Bialystok’s studies and researches, along with her contemporaries.

An editorial (Deuchar 2007) which can be an interesting subject for this paper, says:

…Bialystok presents a range of empirical evidence showing that bilingualism has cognitive advantages across the entire lifespan, from children to aging adults. She demonstrates, concerning a range of experiments involving non-linguistic cognitive tasks performed by both monolinguals and bilinguals, that bilinguals exhibit superior performance.

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What this statement by Deuchar meant is that, according to Bialystok’s study/experiment, bilinguals are more advantaged than monolinguals in terms of cognitive abilities. The experiment “involved paying attention to relevant information and ignoring irrelevant information,” and the result was that the bilinguals exhibited superior performance. It is very interesting to note here that bilinguals are more superior in their cognitive skill than monolinguals.

This could be attributed to “their lifetime experience in alternating between their two active languages, selecting the relevant language and inhibiting attention to the irrelevant one.” There is also an interesting result in Bialystok’s experiment which says that “bilingualism can protect against cognitive decline in aging.” The latter statement still requires further study. The cognitive benefits of bilingualism cannot be ignored, and more and more studies are being conducted in this regard. Bialystok has focused “on the effect of bilingualism on children’s language and cognitive development, showing accelerated mastery of specific cognitive processes for bilingual children.” (Ellen Bialystok)

This paper will deal further and carry more data regarding the Bialystok experiment. Some authors and experimenters have given more studies and detailed data regarding the advantages and skills as a result of bilingualism.

However, Goetry et al. (2006) state: “As a consequence of immigration or parental choices in bilingual educational systems, an increasing proportion of children learn to read and spell in a language other than the one they speak at home”. Many learn a second language by just being in contact with others who speak a second language, or through migration. These children face a lot of challenges in their speech development.

We can choose a particular case study for this paper. Say, for example, a child or children of immigrants (for example Asians) who have come to settle in the United States. Goetry et al (2006) says that these children are “confronted with the challenges of developing the set of complex cognitive abilities necessary for successful reading acquisition, and mapping written symbols to the phonological structures of their non-native language” (350).

This was given light in the paper (Goetry et al, 2006) when it says that, “Decades of research carried on within the monolingual context have shown that such mapping requires phonological awareness.”

Phonological awareness affects a child’s development, especially in the learning of language. A child has this innate knowledge to recognize words, especially his native tongue.

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In Ng and Wigglesworth (2007), Leopold (1949a) “cited his bilingual daughter Hildergarde’s metalinguistic awareness as evidence of the enhancing effects of bilingualism” (59). Metalinguistic awareness is the ability to focus on different levels of linguistic structures such as words, phonemes, and syntax. (62)

The Pear and Lambert Study

Pear and Lambert (1962, quoted in Ng and Wigglesworth, 2007) conducted a study on 364 bilingual and monolingual participants. Their study found that bilinguals outperformed monolinguals in IQ tests “once SES and language competence variables were controlled.” Another relevant finding was that “bilinguals were also found to have more positive attitudes towards French-speaking communities than their (English or French) monolingual counterparts had.” (59)

In Pear and Lambert’s study, bilinguals were better on all measures of non-verbal tasks. One test administered to the children was the Raven Progressive Matrices, a test developed by Raven (1998). In this test, the participants were made to form a concept or discover relations between elements. This consisted of 60 matrices of various forms, but a part was removed, and the participants were required to provide the missing part from a set of eight alternatives. This is often seen in IQ tests. The result was that bilinguals were found to be better in symbolic manipulation in non-verbal tasks, which Pear and Lambert called ‘mental or cognitive flexibility. This pioneering study of Pear and Lambert is related to the study of Bialystok.

Added to this, Hakuta and Diaz (1985, quoted in Ng and Wigglesworth, 2007) conducted a longitudinal study on the relationship of cognition and bilingual proficiency and presented findings that bilingual proficiency “exerts an influence on cognitive functioning and not the other way around.” (60)

On the subject of metalinguistic awareness and bilingualism, both these two important topics are the subjects of present intense studies of which Bialystok and contemporaries are working at. These studies involve word awareness, phonological awareness, sentence awareness, semantic awareness. Word awareness is “the ability to recognize that the speech stream is composed of discrete units called words, and the awareness that the relationship between words and their meaning is arbitrary.” (Ng and Wigglesworth 62)

Phonological awareness is “the ability to recognize that speech is composed of distinct units of sound.” (65) All these studies focused on the development of bilinguals and their comparison with monolinguals. Their development in learning and reading a second language is focused on the studies and surveys.

Goetry et al (2006) defined phonological awareness as “the ability to represent and manipulate the phonological structures of speech, as well as the building of well-defined, redundant, phonological representations of words (e.g. Booth, Perfetti & McWinney, 1999; Elbro, 1996, 1998, cited in Goetry et al, 2006). Sentence awareness is the ability to recognize utterances that are grammatically acceptable within the language. (Ng and Wigglesworth 65)


One practical definition of a bilingual is that the person is exposed to a second language during childhood, or at a later age, and such is the exposure that a conversation can be obtained using these two languages. There can be a dominant language or a native language. The knowledge and expertise in speaking could be almost equal in comparison and perfection, but as to how equal remains to be seen. It can be that a dominant language arises and the native language of the bilingual becomes the second language or the other way around.

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In the past, bilinguals referred to people who had equal mastery of two languages; however, as suggested by Diebold (1961:111), the concept is now extended to include people who have “any contact with possible models in a second language” (qtd. in Macky; cited in Pi-Yu Chiang, 2003).

How long is “contact” with the second language for a child or children to be called bilingual? Are we talking here of time or the children’s fluency to the second language for them to be called bilingual?

Chiang (2003) stated that exposure to the second language is such that the children are influenced much by it. In a study conducted in Taiwan, children in kindergarten were considered bilingual since they were in “contact with English with many kinds of models at an early age… and a school setting” (Pi-Yu Chiang, 2003). The children were exposed to the second language through language learning audiotapes or videos, picture books, and flashcards. English became their second language.

Bilinguals are the subject of intense studies of scientists and experts. This is because it has become a global trend. More and more countries are faced with the influx of immigrants. There were a lot of myths on bilingualism, and one of these is it offers difficulties for children and even adults. But this has been disproved by more findings from studies and surveys that bilingualism offers more advantages than disadvantages.

Studies also proved that bilinguals have displayed superior cognitive abilities than monolinguals. Wood observed that youngsters who came from bilingual homes were “more successful than children from monolingual at recovering mispronunciations, suggesting a linguistic flexibility as a consequence of exposure to more than one language” (Wade-Woolley & Wood, 2006, p. 255). This is a welcome development from years of negative beliefs on bilinguals. Although as Goetry et al (2006) say these children are confronted with challenges in their cognitive abilities, these cognitive abilities become fully developed in bilinguals which allows them to be more superior than monolinguals. They display and develop other abilities and are more successful.

The Pear and Lambert survey on 364 bilingual and monolingual participants is also a welcome development and is a basis for further studies. The study revealed that bilinguals outperformed monolinguals in IQ tests and were found to have more positive attitudes.

We can conclude here that recent studies have found that bilingualism has more positive results in children and adults in their cognitive development.

Works Cited


Lightbown, Patsy M. and Nina Spada. How languages are learned? New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Ng, Bee Chin, and Gillian Wigglesworth. Bilingualism: An Advanced Resource Book. ISBN 0415343860, 9780415343862. Routledge, 2007.

Internet Sources

Chiang, Pi-Yu. Bilingual Children’s Phonological Awareness: The effect of articulation training. Edited by Anne Dahl, Peter Svenonius, and Marit Richardsen Westergaard. National Taiwan University. 2003. Web.

Deuchar, Margaret. Guest Editorial: Cutting Edge Research in Bilingualism. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2007. Web.

Ellen Bialystok, PhD., FSRC. York University. 2008. Web.

Poetry, Vincent, Lesley Wade-Woolley, Regine Kolinsky, and Philippe Mousty. The Role of Stress Processing Abilities in the Development of Bilingual Reading. Journal of Research in Reading, ISSN 0141-0423. Volume 29, Issue 3, 2006, pp 349–362. Source: Journal of Research in Reading, v29 n3 p349-362.

Wade-Woolley, Lesley and Wood, Clare. Editorial: Prosodic sensitivity and reading development. Journal of Research in Reading, ISSN 0141-0423, 29 (3), pp 253-257. 2008. Web.

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