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How Does Being Bilingual Affect Learning?

Bilingualism and LDFor generations, we were told that raising children in two languages would leave them “confused.” The idea was that children would learn slower, learn less and generally be less successful if they were tasked with learning two languages instead of just one. This folk wisdom often pushed parents to not teach children their first language and, for schools in the United States, led to a strict and occasionally brutal, English-only policy. And this mindset lives on; scour the internet and you’ll discover that this psuedo-information continues to circulate.

The truth of the matter is that bilingualism does not, in any way, harm a child’s intellectual development. In fact, researchers are starting to demonstrate that bilingualism has a number of cognitive benefits.

Does Being Bilingual Make It Hard to Learn?First, both as parents and researchers, we need to understand that a bilingual child is not two monolinguals in the same brain. Bilingual children are not trying to learn two versions of every word. Instead, the bilingual child’s language is “distributed,” meaning that she may have some concepts stored in one language and some concepts stored in another. We see this in children as they go to school; they may know words for food, family, and holidays in their home language and words for algebra and geography in the language of the classroom.

The issue then arises when we consider testing, both in the classroom and particularly for learning disabilities (LD). Testing a bilingual child in a single language and comparing them to monolingual children can lead to underestimating a bilingual child’s abilities. Bilingual children are often only tested on a portion of what they know. This in turn can lead to an over-diagnosis of LD in bilingual children. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that bilingual children are more likely to have LD, they are simply at risk for being diagnosed with LD when they in fact are developing normally.

It’s worth noting that, occasionally, the opposite can occur: an under-reporting of LD in bilingual children. A well-intentioned evaluator may decide that a child’s language delays are due to problematic testing in a single language, and ignore what could be a language and/or learning disability.

A number of researchers, including Elizabeth Peña and Lisa Bedore at the University of Texas, are currently working on refining tests for language impairment and learning disabilities to better assess bilingual children. It may take time, though, for these results to trickle down to schools and teachers. If parents are in doubt, discussing these issues with teachers or seeking assessment from a bilingual language pathologist may prove worthwhile.

What Are the Benefits of Being Bilingual? Currently, scientists like Ellen Bialystok propose that a bilingual individual uses “executive control” functions to separate the two languages. These executive functions are the abilities of the brain that we use for things like higher-level decision making, paying attention in a crowded coffee shop, or figuring out logic puzzles. So, as a bilingual person manages their two languages, they are effectively exercising these same brain “muscles.”

Bilingualism and LD - Intellectual DevelopmentAs a result of this mental workout, bilingual children have been shown to perform better than their monolingual peers at tasks that require active attention. Amazingly, this improved performance has been shown even in infants who have yet to begin to talk. The benefits of such improved attention can be imaginable in the classroom and other learning environments. As an additional learning-related benefit, bilingual children have been shown to have greater “meta-linguistic awareness”; they understand and can articulate how language works better than their monolingual peers. Meta-linguistic awareness can result in greater ease of learning more new languages and other complex language tasks. These advantages continue throughout a bilingual person’s life. For example, recent investigations have shown that active use of two languages can actually delay cognitive decline, like Alzheimer’s disease, by almost two years.

Beyond these cognitive benefits, as an economic cherry on top of the bilingual sundae, on average bilingual people can expect to earn a higher salary than their monolingual peers—between five and 25 percent more, according to Salary.com.

It’s worth keeping in mind that just like individuals who speak one language, bilingual people come in all shapes and sizes. While there are clear and proven benefits of bilingualism, bilingual people grapple with language impairment and learning difficulties at a similar proportion as their monolingual peers.

Bilingualism. Pass It On.It may be difficult to imagine, but more than two-thirds of the world’s population speaks more than one language, or—as a linguist several generations ago put it—“suffers from the condition of” bilingualism. We’ve come a long way from the early idea of bilingualism as a detriment to our children. Not only is it the worldwide norm, but research is building a compelling case for the cognitive, learning and even financial benefits of bilingualism. While my grandparents did what they thought was best and raised their children in a strict English-only household, I intend to follow science and my heart, passing along both of my languages to my children.

LD and Learning a New Language




Daniel OlsonDaniel Olson is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics in the School of Languages and Cultures at Purdue University. He received his PhD and MA in Hispanic Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. Daniel's research focuses on phonetics and phonology, particularly in bilinguals and language learners. He's exc+ited to share his experience with the LD community.

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