Bilingualism and Intelligence

Parents who are thinking about bilingual education for their children quite reasonably ask the question: How will the emphasis on learning a second language impact on my child’s intellectual development? In other words, parents want to know if bilingualism assists or hinders cognitive development – the ability to reason, learn and solve problems.

For many years, as recently as the late 1960s, there was a widespread belief in the general community and among researchers that bilingualism and bilingual learning hindered both “innate” intelligence and success in learning. Researchers argued that there was a “balance effect” – that bilingual learners gained in linguistic competence, but lost ground in cognitive development compared with monolingual students. However, by the late 1940s, these beliefs were being seriously challenged, and research in South Africa, Ireland and Canada in the 1960s and 70s effectively put an end to the simple theory that bilingualism hindered cognitive development. In fact the pendulum has swung the other way, though not from one extreme to the other.

The earlier beliefs were based on simplistic understandings of the value of IQ test scores. Researchers had more faith than was justified in the validity and universality of these scores. Often, bilingual learners were tested in their weaker language and then compared with monolinguals who had been tested in their stronger - in fact, their only – language. This would not happen today, as educational psychologists are all aware of the socio-economic and linguistic factors that need to be taken into account in interpreting test scores of this kind. In fact, recent research suggests that bilinguals whose two languages are both well developed tend to perform better on IQ tests than monolinguals. (At this point we might just note that IQ is a very limited means of testing “intelligence”. At Sarasas Ektra School, students are engaged in activities that challenge and develop their “multiple intelligences”, but we can discuss this further in a future issue of Metro Life.)

Further studies, where differences in language, gender and socio-economic background have been taken into account, have yielded the following findings:

          1. Students in bilingual immersion programs have scored as well as their non-bilingual peers in tests of their common language, but much higher in the second (minority or foreign) language.
          2. Students in bilingual programs have greater metalinguistic awareness than monolingual students. For example, young children are more aware that the name of something is simply a convention of language – it is not an inherent property of the thing itself. They understand that a language is an arbitrary system; that there is no “right” language against which other languages can be judged. This is an essential awareness in a multilingual and multicultural world.
          3. This greater metalinguistic awareness appears also to give bilingual students greater flexibility in the use of language. They have been found to have greater insight into the potential diversity of language and are more creative in their own use of language.
          4. There is some evidence that linguistic flexibility extends in bilingual children to general cognitive flexibility, an asset in a world of constant change and variation and a trait sought after by employers of people in roles requiring sensitivity and problem-solving abilities.
          5. Bilingual children have been found superior to monolinguals in higher concept formation. One reason suggested for this is the wider range of experiences bilingual children have due to their participation in two cultures and linguistic systems.
          6. The bilingual speaker’s habit of switching from one language to another (“code switching”) – though it may limited where bilingual speaking occurs only in school settings – assists in tasks requiring conceptual reorganization (thinking about things in a new way).

The above are some findings that indicate that bilingualism is an asset, not a liability, in cognitive development. There is little dispute with these findings. Where dispute occurs in bilingual education research it is usually over the question of methods and models of instruction and the nature and limits of the research itself.

However, it should be noted that the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and bilingual education are usually more evident as the child’s ability in their weaker language improves. One can think of the cognitive benefits in terms of a 3-level progression.

Level One (weak in both languages)
          • Children have low levels of competence in both languages.
          • Children may have difficulty processing information in either language
Level Two (weak in one language)
          • Children have an age-appropriate level of competence in one language (probably their mother tongue), but are weaker in the second language.
          • Their cognitive development will probably be similar to that of a monolingual of similar age and circumstances.
Level Three (strong in both languages)
          • Children have age-appropriate level of competence in both languages.
          • They may have thinking advantages over monolinguals.

As we know with the linguistic advantages of bilingual education, so with cognitive development we must allow some time for the advantages to take effect. Where school-age students, as in Thailand, have limited opportunities to speak their second language in authentic contexts outside school, it takes several years of bilingual education before a high level of productive (speaking and writing) as well as receptive (listening and reading) competence in the second language is attained. However, the evidence is clear from the experience of Sarasas Ektra School and other bilingual schools that students do arrive at high levels of linguistic competence over time. One would hope that these students have attained a superior level of cognitive development as well. The results of Sarasas Ektra students on national tests and Entrance exams over the past six years indicate that they have suffered no cognitive disadvantage. Their performances at university level indicate that bilingual education has, indeed, been of great benefit to them.