What is the ‘bilingual advantage’?
The idea here is that children who speak more than one language find a type of thinking known as executive control easier than those who only speak one language; this difference is known as the ‘bilingual advantage’. Executive control refers to our ability to manipulate and control our attention: to inhibit responses, ignore irrelevant stimuli, and flip between tasks. It’s thought that bi- (or multi-) lingual children are better equipped for this as a result of experience with two things: firstly, flipping between languages as they speak to different individuals; and secondly, using a word in one language while simultaneously ignoring the corresponding word in their other language (or languages)[i]. The bilingual advantage theory says that having this linguistic flexibility also results in better control in non-linguistic tasks. In the classroom this should mean that children who speak more than one language are able to focus better on what they’re doing while ignoring distractions, and flip between activities more easily.
Bilingual children do outperform their monolingual peers on some tasks
The kind of tasks that researchers use to test the bilingual advantage typically involve responding to something while ignoring something else. One such task is the Attention Network Test (ANT[ii]), in which you have to press one of two keys as quickly as possible to show which way a central arrow is facing, the arrow may be flanked with arrows facing the same way, arrows facing the opposite way, or by no arrows. Those who find it hard to ignore the flanking arrows will be quicker when all the arrows point the same way, and slower when they don’t.
Bilingual children have been shown to be quicker on trials with flanking arrows that face the wrong way; that is, they can better ignore irrelevant distracting information. One study which showed this with 8 to 11 year olds found bilingual and trilingual children to have an equal advantage over monolingual children[iii]. The authors described bilingualism as ‘linguistic multitasking’. Another group found a bilingual advantage in speed of response in 5 to 14 year olds, but only in those who had learned two languages before the age of three[iv], suggesting that an advantage in executive control relies on having to flip between languages as you first acquire language.
Interestingly, one group found that bilingual English-Spanish kindergarten children in America outperformed their English monolingual peers when they had to select one thing and ignore another, but not on impulse control when they had to wait for things. So these children showed a specific advantage for conflict, when attending to one thing and ignoring another[v].
However, not everyone agrees that these differences are due to bilingualism
A particular difficulty when running studies with bi- and monolingual speakers is that they tend to differ in important ways other than their linguistic experience. As most of the studies that consider the bilingual advantage have been run in countries like the UK and the USA, children often differ on measures of ethnicity and the relative advantage or disadvantage of their backgrounds. Some argue that if you take these things into account then the bilingual advantage would be diminished[vi]. Studies that make a point of taking these differences into account often find no differences between groups of children on tasks such as the ANT [vii].
Despite these controversies, few researchers would argue that there are zero differences between children who speak one compared to more than one language. A recent comprehensive review concluded that the most robust finding across studies is a general advantage in speed of response for those who have more than one language; it’s suggested that bilingual children could be slightly better than their monolingual peers at monitoring the environment for things that don’t agree, so that they can more rapidly focus on the right source of information[viii].
Bilingualism could even be seen as a disadvantage
Bilingualism isn’t all rosy, however: there is also research looking at the disadvantage of speaking more than one language. Bilingual speakers have a slower speed of naming, even in their more dominant language[ix], and while their vocabulary is equal to monolingual speakers when looking across languages, they often show slower vocabulary development when looking at any one language[x]. Arguably such differences would result in little real disadvantage in the long run, but the impact of these findings in the classroom has not yet been explored.
The more languages the merrier
Language is such a major part of thinking and learning that it would be odd if bilingualism didn’t have some effect. But it’s easy to forget, when living in a country like the UK where 62% of the population do not even have ‘basic’ skills in another language[xi], that for much of the world, multilingualism and multiculturalism is the norm. For the moment the linguistic and cultural advantages of speaking more than one language are far more pertinent for learning, and for life, than any advantages (or disadvantages) that spill over into non-linguistic thinking. When it comes to understanding those non-linguistic differences, the implications for the classroom have not yet been mapped out. Recently some work has shown that bilingual children are better able than their monolingual peers to ignore irrelevant noises when listening to speech[xii], which does have implications for listening well in the classroom.
There are plenty of theoretical and real-world questions to be answered here, and lots of interest in answering them. The verdict? This one is a bit murky, but based on things like the difficulty some researchers have had replicating effects, for the moment at least it’s probably a neuro-myth.
Have a look at the ANT here.
For a review of cognitive and linguistic advantages and disadvantages (or whether they are disadvantages) of bilingualism in childhood see Akhtar, N., & Meniivar, J. A. (2012). Cognitive and linguistic correlates of early exposure to more than one language. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 42, 41-78.
[ii] Fan, J., McCandliss, B. D., Sommer, T., Raz, A., & Posner, M. I. (2002). Testing the efficiency and independence of attentional networks. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14 (3), 340-7. doi:10.1162/089892902317361886
[vii] Antón, E., Duñabeitia, J. A., Estévez, A., Hernández, J. A., Castillo, A., Fuentes, L. J., Davidson, D., & Carreiras, M. (2014). Is there a bilingual advantage in the ANT task? Evidence from children. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, Article 398.
[viii] Are there bilingual advantages on non-linguistic interference tasks? Implications for the plasticity of executive control processes. (2011). Hilchey, M. D., & Klein, R. M. (2011). Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 18, 625–658. DOI 10.3758/s13423-011-0116-7