Routinely collected data from Department for Education shows that, on average, pupils who speak more than one language achieve similarly in school to children who only speak English[i]. However, their definition includes both pupils who are exposed to multiple languages from infancy and those who learn English when they get to school. When they narrow down to just pupils classified as “competent” or “fluent” in English, they find that pupils who are bi- or multi-lingual have higher attainment than pupils who only speak English[ii]. By contrast, pupils who are not fluent in English when they start school or enter into English schooling during late primary or secondary school are more likely to experience academic difficulties, probably due to the language barrier[iii].
So, it seems that the answer is not as simple as the headline would lead you to believe. Bi- and multi-lingual learners are a diverse group who differ from not only pupils who speak one language but also one another in many ways. Below, we explore where the idea of the ‘bilingual advantage’ came from and why we must be cautious in interpreting evidence supposedly demonstrating this.
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)[iv]. 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 sometime 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 ([v]), 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 (which should help), arrows facing the opposite way (which should hinder unless you can ignore them), 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.
Many studies have found support for the bilingual advantage using this task. Eight to eleven year old bilinguals were shown to be better at ignoring irrelevant distracting information in one study [vi]. Five to fourteen year old bilinguals were found to respond faster in another, but only in those who had learned two languages before the age of 3 [vii], suggesting that an advantage in executive control relies on having to flip between languages as you first acquire language. Another 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[viii].
A major difficulty in comparing bilinguals and monolinguals is that there is no ‘random allocation to condition’. To run an experiment, one would ideally assign individuals to be in the bilingual or monolingual groups at random to make sure that the groups differed systematically only with respect to language but were in other regards likely to be the same. This ideal experiment is not possible, which means that there may be other differences between bilinguals and monolinguals that explain group differences in executive control (so-called ‘confounds’). For example, bilingual and monolingual children may differ in the socioeconomic status of their families, or the interactions the children experienced with their parents when learning language.
Recently, a clever study naturally controlled for sociodemographic differences and found that level of bilingualism did not predict performance on these tasks[ix]. The researchers studied 207 9–10-year-old children with various levels of bilingualism who all live on the small island of Gibraltar. Gibraltar residents speak English and Spanish to different degrees of mastery but share the same culture and access to schools and amenities. A study that carefully matched Spanish only and Spanish/Basque speaking children also found no bilingual advantages on the Attention Network Task[x]. Whether the same would be true for school outcomes remains to be seen.
Could there be any academic advantages for proficient bilingual learners?
Some studies have suggested that the positive effects of bilingualism on executive function cannot all be explained by sociodemographic factors[xi] [xii]. Perhaps then, these effects are specific to certain populations of bi- or multi-lingual pupils. Whilst efforts are being made by researchers to understand the differences between studies, let us focus on other possible bilingual advantages that could be relevant to school success.
Several studies have shown that bi-/multi-lingual pupils have better socio-emotional wellbeing and social communication skills which may help them to positively engage with teachers and peers in school[xiii] [xiv]. The benefits for communication are seen as early as infancy and are thought to be because multilingualism might help us to take perspectives and think about who understands what[xv]. More widely, speaking more than one language allows access to additional cultural and social networks, which may also confer benefits.
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 61% of the population do not even have ‘basic’ skills in another language[xvi], 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.
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. Based on the difficulty researchers have had replicating cognitive effects, for the moment at least the bilingual advantage for executive function is probably a neuro-myth. Nevertheless, there could be other advantages conferred by bi-/multi-lingualism for school outcomes which we do not know enough about yet.
Have a look at the ANT here.
[v] 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
[ix] Moreno-Stokoe, C. M., & Damian, M. F. (2020). Employing natural control for confounding factors in the hunt for the bilingual advantage in attention: evidence from school children in Gibraltar. Journal of Cognition, 3(1).
[x] Antón, E., Duñabeitia, J. A., Estévez, A., Hernández, J. A., Castillo, A., Fuentes, L. J., … & Carreiras, M. (2014). Is there a bilingual advantage in the ANT task? Evidence from children. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 398.
[xii] Filippi, R., Ceccolini, A., Booth, E., Shen, C., Thomas, M. S., Toledano, M. B., & Dumontheil, I. (2022). Modulatory effects of SES and multilinguistic experience on cognitive development: a longitudinal data analysis of multilingual and monolingual adolescents from the SCAMP cohort. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 1-18.
[xiii] Whiteside, K. E., Gooch, D., & Norbury, C. F. (2017). English language proficiency and early school attainment among children learning English as an additional language. Child Development, 88(3), 812-827.