Is it really an asset to be bilingual?


Long considered in France as an exception, bilingualism, or more broadly the recurrent use of two or more languages ​​on a daily basis, is more and more essential in the daily life of our society. According to psycholinguist François Grosjean , half of the world’s population is considered bilingual.

For more than 20 years, UNESCO has been working to raise awareness of languages ​​in education from an early age . In terms of educational policies, this implies relying on one or more mother tongues, and including regional and / or international languages ​​as soon as possible.

In France, languages ​​are approached earlier and earlier, from kindergarten , to promote awakening to languages ​​and the development of phonological skills (in particular the ability to discriminate and reproduce sounds) which are a strong predictor of future performance in reading.

If bilingualism is developing, it nevertheless continues to give rise to fears associated with the language development of children, and discourse aimed at discouraging the simultaneous acquisition of two languages ​​(“that he learn French well before learning another language” ; “Children who learn two languages ​​are less good than natives in both languages”) are still widely promoted.

Knowing how to juggle words

However, studies in cognitive science or psycholinguistics, very developed on the issue, do not lead to an alarmist discourse. Investigations carried out by researchers over the past 20 years have even begun to repeatedly highlight the term “bilingual advantage”.

The most significant contributions in the direction of this bilingual advantage were made by the work of Ellen Bialystok , professor of psychology at the University of York (Canada), which highlighted the beneficial effects of bilingualism throughout of life. But concretely, how can we qualify this advantage?

Bilinguals are sometimes identified as “jugglers” because they are more or less regularly called upon to switch from one language to another. This language change activity supposes exercising a strong form of cognitive control , since in order to communicate in a given language, the other must be withdrawn, in order to limit interference.

Cognitive abilities would thus be trained by the bilingual experience, which would result in a more efficient control of language activation, which could also benefit other components of our cognitive system, such as the ability to control motor actions . However, these benefits are not limited to bilingualism, and we can find improved control capacities in people who regularly play music, and even video games!

Good reading performance

A first element of the answer can be found in studies examining the brain function of bilingual people. Several studies have considered the importance of environmental stimuli – for example the diversity of the language environment or the fact of carrying out cognitively rich activities on a daily basis – as a factor explaining the increase in the density of gray matter.

In children, these benefits can be reflected at different levels. In terms of school learning, it seems that bilingualism promotes the development of language, overall, and more particularly literacy skills, which define the ability to use written information in everyday life.

In this regard, some studies have shown that bilinguals had better reading performance, in particular, associated with greater ability to discriminate between sounds. This refers, more broadly, to metalinguistic skills, particularly in terms of phonological awareness  : the child is more aware of the representations of some, and is more comfortable playing with them.

On the semantic level, they show greater flexibility in playing with language, and in appreciating its arbitrary nature (playing with the meaning of words in particular, for example with interlexical homographs which have the same writing but a different meaning (for example). For example, the French word “four” translates to “hoven” in English, and the English word “four” translates to “four” in French).

Self-regulatory capacity

More generally, bilingualism would have a positive contribution to the development of attention , which would allow bilinguals to ignore information that is not relevant, to resolve a conflict generated by an activation competition (in a situation of double task for example), or to minimize the quantity of cognitive resources associated with the change of task. This can help them focus their attention on the right information and ignore distractions.

These advantages take on particular meaning considering the classroom activities that children face. A better self-regulatory capacity is associated with a much stronger focus of attention on what is important, the counterpart of which is less distraction. These students also show greater ease in adopting behavior adapted to a specific context (eg refusing to participate in a dangerous or inappropriate activity).

While most of these benefits are found in adults, the most significant benefit concerns cognitive aging. Bialystok spoke on this subject of a more “healthy” bilingual brain after having identified, in patients with Alzheimer’s type dementia, a delay in the onset and development of symptoms. Bilingualism is considered here as a source of mental gymnastics which benefits all brain structures.

Are there only benefits?

While the advantages are numerous, several psycholinguistic studies have shown longer reaction times in bilinguals in certain tests evaluating access to the mental lexicon. It is also recognized that a bilingual child does not have as much vocabulary as a monolingual child of the same age.

However, this should not lead to too actively conclude that there is a delay in language, because if we consider the two known languages ​​the quantity of vocabulary accessible to the bilingual is comparable, or even greater, to that of a monolingual.

Bilingual children may also, when they begin to speak, produce statements that mix two languages. These language code alternations, often frequent until about the age of 4, decrease when the level of mastery of each of the languages ​​increases, and in an interesting way are always worked out while preserving the meaning of the spoken sentence.

In conclusion, bilinguals follow the same developmental stages as monolinguals, but at a pace suited to the progressive construction of a lexicon in two languages. It is a specificity that must be able to be expressed, because developing the use of languages ​​and acculturation is an excellent way of opening up to the world in harmony with one’s knowledge of languages.

Author Bio: Xavier Aparicio is a Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC)