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Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes among Children

Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume. 8 Number 4 December 2017 Pp. 451-466
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes among Children
Abdulaziz Alshahrani
Department of Foreign Languages
College of Arts and Humanities
Albaha University, Albaha City, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The aim of this paper was to evaluate the contentions and evidence supporting two divergent views
about the existence of advantages offered by bilingualism. It also considered whether a definite
conclusion was possible. A qualitative research methodology using the published evidence was
adopted. The published evidence supporting or rejecting the advantages of bilingualism was
collected using search terms in the Google Scholar search engine. A total number of 64 papers
were collected, among which only five challenged the claimed advantages enjoyed by bilingual
individuals. The papers were classified by their orientation and discussed. Based on the points
derived from the evaluation of evidence, some conclusions were drawn. The overwhelming
research support in favour of the existence of supposed bilingual advantage tends to suggest a
conclusion in favour of that hypothesis. However, the points raised by critics, such as small sample
sizes, inadequate matching of other variables, as well as defective measurements and analysis
cannot be ignored as they question the very validity of the studies which support bilingual
advantage. Future research needs to pay more attention to these aspects.
Keywords: advantages of bilingualism, bilingualism, bilingual acquisition, childhood bilingualism
Cite as: Alshahrani, A. (2017). Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive
Processes among Children. Arab World English Journal, 8 (4).
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
Aim of this paper
There are two strongly held divergent views among researchers on whether bilinguals have
any advantage over monolinguals with respect to cognitive functions. One view, proposed by a
large group headed by Bialystok and her associates, presents evidence to show that attention
control and a superior capacity to analyse knowledge are two cognitive advantages of bilingualism.
The other group has obtained some recent evidence rejecting the idea of any cognitive advantage
deriving from bilingualism. The aim of this paper is to evaluate the contentions and evidence
proposed by the two groups and examine whether a definite conclusion is possible.
Surprisingly, there is relatively little reliable research on the effects of bilingualism on
cognitive processes and development, especially in the case of children. This is a nascent area of
research and much needs to be done to answer a number of related questions. One of the
complexities involved in the research into bilingualism in children is the large array of disciplines
that such research involves, including psychology, education and linguistics.
In an edited book on cognitive aspects of bilingualism, Kecskes & Albertazzi (2007)
differentiated between the real world and the projected world of cognition. Although information
conveyed by a language needs to be about this inner projected (mental) world, this is not shown
well in the chapters of the book. Some unexplored areas included in the discussions are: the gender
system in bilingual minds, the concept of context and task synergism, blending, and the
relationship between lexical and ontological categorisations.
This paper is organised in the following manner. A brief outline of the research
methodology used for this paper is given in the next section. This is followed by a section on the
evidence in favour of bilingual advantage is discussed. The next section deals with the evidence
presented by the opposing group to show that no bilingual advantages exist. The relative merits of
the two arguments are discussed in the section following the two theories. Conclusions are drawn
in the final section.
Research Methodology
Since the topic is dealt by using evidence in favour of and against bilingual advantage,
research publications available on both sides of the argument were searched for in the Google
Scholar search engine using appropriate search terms. In the first stage, the papers available from
the first five web pages of the Google Scholar selection were downloaded and then classified based
on their contents, irrespective of the year (any time) of publication. In the second stage, more
recent papers were searched for, specifying a publication date range from 2013 to 2017. A total of
64 papers were obtained by these methods, of which 59 research works argued in favour of
bilingual advantage while the rest were counter to this theory.
The intention of this paper is to present a simple qualitative discussion rather than a
quantitative meta-analysis based on international reviewing standards like Cochrane.
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
The evidence in favour of the bilingual advantage
A large majority of the papers offering support for a theory of bilingual advantage belong
to the Bialystok group. For convenience, works supporting the likelihood of bilingual advantage
are discussed more or less chronologically, deriving mutual support from related works wherever
Early works
Ianco-Worrall (1972) notes that bilinguals developed the ability to separate word sound
from word meaning earlier than monolinguals. The conclusion is derived from the results of a test
on 4-9 year old children. In this study, bilingualism is defined as dual language acquisition in an
environment of one child, from one language home. Out of three hypotheses connecting
bilingualism with various abilities, only one related to cognitive ability of a kind is verified in the
dissertation work of Ben-Zeev (1972).
In a very early study, Slobin (1973) proposes that children must have preliminary internal
structures to assimilate both linguistic and non-linguistic inputs. He argues that the development
of semantic intentions stems from general cognitive development. He uses linguistic input to
identify intended meaning, drawing on his theories about the nature of language use and general
cognitive-perceptive strategies. He also takes note of limitations enforced by operative memory.
In Slobin’s model, information from existing information structures are assimilated and absorbed
into new inputs. Increasing age expands these realms into new dimensions.
Cummins (1976) tries to resolve the inconsistency between earlier reports and current
reports regarding the relationship of bilingualism to cognitive consequences. Earlier studies have
reported a negative relationship between the two. The current results reported a positive
relationship. The contrasting results are partly due to the fact that the recent studies were conducted
on balanced bilinguals in what were claimed to be additive bilingual settings. In these cases, the
bilingual subjects had attained a high level of competence in their second language without
affecting their competence in their first language. In earlier studies, in bilinguals from minority
groups, the competency in the first language was being gradually replaced by competence in
second language. Thus, the bilinguals in these cases paid for their competence in the second
language by lowering competence in the first language. The author proposed a hypothesis Based
on this difference: the level of language competence attained by a bilingual child may mediate the
effects of the bilingual learning experience on cognitive growth. A threshold level of linguistic
competence may exist, beyond which the bilingual child needs to attain a certain level of both
competencies to avoid cognitive deficits and to allow potential benefits of bilingualism to affect
general cognitive functioning. There is no indication that the hypothesis was verified by any other
The objective of the Irish study by Cummins (1978) was to assess the level of
metalinguistic awareness and the ability to evaluate contradictory and tautological statements
among children. A test to evaluate this was administered to grade Three and grade Six English-
Irish bilingual children and to control groups of unilingual children matched on Intelligence
Quotient, Socio-Economic Status, gender, and age. The findings showed a greater awareness of
certain properties of language and a better ability to evaluate contradictory statements among both
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
grades of the bilingual children compared to the control group. Thus, it was proposed that
bilingualism can increase a child's metalinguistic awareness and promote an analytic orientation
to linguistic input.
In a later paper, Cummins (1979) further proposes the developmental inter-dependence
hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, “the development of competence in a second language
(L2) is partially a function of the type of competence already developed in L1 by the time that
intensive exposure to L2 begins” (p.3, abstract ). The threshold hypothesis proposed in the earlier
work was reiterated. Thus, the hypothesis states that “there may be threshold levels of linguistic
competence which a bilingual child must attain both in order to avoid cognitive disadvantages and
allow the potentially beneficial aspects of bilingualism to influence his cognitive and academic
functioning.” (p,3, abstract)The two hypotheses were combined to propose that “a cognitively and
academically beneficial form of bilingualism can be achieved only on the basis of adequately
developed first language (L1) skills.” (p.3, abstract).
In their work, Potter, So, Von Eckardt, & Feldman (1984) do not obtain support for a
simple word association hypothesis, but have found support for a meaning mediation hypothesis
to explain the association between equivalent words in the two languages of a bilingual person.
Thus it is suggested that the only connection between words in two languages is through an
underlying conceptual system to which pictured objects also have access. In this paradigm a certain
time seems to be needed to identify the word for a stimulus picture in the first language and
possibly also a certain time is needed to translate from the first to second language.
Cognitive aspects of bilingualism advantages
In one of E. Bialystok’s early works (Bialystok, 1987), she proposes a framework in which
metalinguistic awareness consisted of two processing components: the analysis of linguistic
knowledge, and the control of linguistic processes. In this model, global assessments of
metalinguistic ability by bilingual subjects are said to lead to conflicting results due to the
enhancement of only the latter of these processing components in a bilingual environment.
Attention control and the analysis of knowledge are two processes found to develop differently in
monolingual and bilingual children when solving linguistic problems (Bialystok, 1988).
According to the theory of cognitive complexity and control (CCC) proposed by Zelazo &
Frye (1997), preschool children lack the necessary conscious representation and executive
functioning to solve problems based on conflicting rules. Related to this, in a later work, Bialystok
& Majumder (1998) evaluate the effect of different degrees of bilingualism on the non-verbal
problem solving abilities of children in grade three. In their study, a French-English and a
Bengali-English bilingual group are compared with an English monolingual group. The problem
solving task is designed to measure the subject’s control of attention and analysis of knowledge.
In earlier studies, these capabilities have been shown to be different for monolingual and bilingual
children when it came to solving linguistic problems. Language proficiency tests show the French-
English group to be relatively more balanced bilinguals and the Bengali-English group to be
partially balanced bilinguals. The results show the balanced French-English group to be better in
solving non-linguistic tasks requiring the control of attention. However, there is no difference
among the three groups with respect to the ability to analyse representational structures. Thus,
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
balanced bilinguals do appear to carry their linguistic advantages to non-linguistic tasks requiring
close attention.
In the studies of Bialystok (1999), she identifies analysis (manipulating representations)
and control (selective attention) as the two main components of language processing. One of these,
control, is shown to develop earlier in bilingual children than in monolinguals. The author also
identifies the role of attentional control in cognitive development, thus supporting CCC theory.
Depending upon discourse demands, at some level bilinguals need to control two languages
during speech. This affects their attentional networks. Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner
(2002) discuss three types of attentional networks among bilinguals. These three attentional
networks are: becoming alert, orienting and executive control. Bilinguals are faster in performing
tasks and specifically are more efficient at becoming alert and managing executive networks. More
content is added by bilinguals on presentation of an alerting cue and it is more useful to resolve
conflicting information. Their switching cost between trials is less than that of monolinguals. The
most efficient attention mechanisms appear to be produced by young adults who are at the peak of
their attention capabilities. In another work by Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan (2004),
the ability to control processing among bilinguals decreases less with age than among
monolinguals. Thus, bilingualism effectively helps to off-set age-related loss of the ability to
control some executive processes.
One experiment compares monolingual and bilingual children who either do or do not have
much experience with playing computer games. The experiment is done on specially designed
Simon tasks by (Bialystok, 2006). Video-game playing children are faster under most conditions.
They are even better when control conditions do not include conflict from irrelevant positions. On
the other hand, bilinguals are faster only when the most controlled attention is required to resolve
conflict between the position and the stimulus. The potential of experience to modify performance
and subtle differences in the processing of different versions of the Simon task are clear in these
In the continuing work on bilingual development in relation to cognitive abilities, Bialystok
(2007) observes that the experience of controlling attention to two languages accelerates executive
control processes in early childhood. It continues to sustain the cognitive control advantages
through adulthood. During advanced age, it protects from the decline of these processes. In the
findings reported by Carlson & Meltzoff (2008), native bilingual children perform significantly
better on the executive function. They are better than both other groups, especially in the tasks that
appear to call for managing conflicting attentional demands (Conflict tasks), but not impulse
control (delay) tasks.
Based on a review and meta-analysis, Adesope, Lavin, Thompson, & Ungerleider, (2010)
find that bilingualism is associated with many cognitive outcomes. These included increased
attentional control, working memory, abstract and symbolic representation skills and
metalinguistic awareness. The term metalinguistic awareness refers to the ability to think about
the language. Even when bilinguals speak one language while suppressing the other language, both
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
languages are active. Using many assessment tools, Hilchey & Klein (2011) observe higher
cognitive abilities among bilinguals than is the case with the monolingual group.
The findings of Morales & Bialystok (2013) show that working memory is better in
bilingual children, especially if the task contained additional executive function demands. In a
comparative study, all bilinguals perform executive control tasks similarly. Language tasks are
performed better by the bilingual groups whose instructional language is the same as the test
language. Thus, specific bilingual experience influenced performance in verbal tasks (Barac &
Bialystok, 2012). The results obtained by Morales, Calvo, & Bialystok (2013) confirm the
advantages of executive functioning and working memory among bilingual children compared to
monolinguals. The cognitive effects of bilingual advantages are highlighted by Kroll & Bialystok
(2013) as bilinguals outperform their monolingual counterparts on tasks that required ignoring
irrelevant information, task switching, and resolving conflict.
According to Macnamara & Conway (2014), experience in engaging general cognitive
mechanisms to manage two languages can explain the bilingual advantage. Also, bimodal (signed
languagespoken language) bilinguals do not exhibit this advantage due to the reduction of conflict
and control demands by distinct language modalities. The mechanism behind bilingual advantages
may arise from a combination of the magnitude of bilingual management demands and the amount
of experience managing those demands. In an experiment, bimodal bilinguals ae given the
experience of managing high bilingual management demands. These participants outperform
themselves from two years previously on demonstrating the cognitive advantages of bilingualism.
High socio-economic status and bilingualism are independently associated with better language
performance and executive function in a study by Calvo & Bialystok (2014).
In an investigation of US Latino students by Riggs, Shin, Unger, Spruijt-Metz, & Pentz
(2014), bilingualism significantly predicts an advantage in the summary executive function score
and working memory. Bilingual proficiency is positively related to executive function. While
controlling for a potential third variable in bilingualism, prospective associations between
bilingualism and executive function are demonstrated in this study, together with a significant role
for working memory in the relationship. In their study, Singh et al (2015) compare 114
monolingual and bilingual infants in a very basic task of information processing and visual
habituation at 6 months of age. The results show a generalized cognitive advantage in bilingual
infants that is broad in scope, early to emerge, and not specific to language.
Monolinguals and bilinguals with or without reading difficulties are compared for
executive functioning by JalaliMoghadam & KormiNouri (2015). Reading difficulty reduces
executive control more prominently in bilingual children than monolingual children with reading
difficulty. Thus, although bilinguals show general superiority in executive functioning with respect
to normal reading, they fail to show superiority when they have reading difficulties. Executive
functioning is important for both reading skills and bilingualism.
The study reported by Poarch & Bialystok (2015) consist of 203 children, 811 years old,
who are monolingual, partially bilingual, bilingual, or trilingual performing a flanker task. The
results show that bilingualism affects multitasking. Bilingual children outperformed monolinguals
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
on the conflict trials in the flanker task. This result confirms the existence of a bilingual advantage
in executive functioning. The inclusion of partial bilinguals and trilinguals set limits on the role of
experience. Partial bilinguals perform closer to monolinguals and trilinguals perform closer to
bilinguals. These results suggest that degrees of experience are not well calibrated to improve
executive functioning. Because both languages of bilinguals are constantly active, the model
hypothesizes that bilinguals need to manage attention to the target language and avoid interference
from the non-target language. This process is likely to be carried out by recruiting the executive
function (EF) system, a system that is also the basis for multitasking.
In a review, Bialystok (2015) argues that attention, as a component of executive function,
emerges early in the developmental process and initiates the differences in bilingual children from
their infancy.
Linguistic and other aspects of cognitive advantage of bilingualism
Lexical production in early sequential bilinguals (Spanish-English) is studied by Kohnert,
Bates, & Hernandez (1999). Spanish is learned as the first language at home. Formal English
learning starts at the age of five. Although both languages develop with age, the initial dominance
of Spanish in the youngest children gives way progressively (with age) to relatively balanced skills
in both Spanish and English in middle childhood and culminate in a clear English dominance
among adolescents and young adults. The response time for these lexical effects decrease with
increasing age. The developmental changes in the speed-accuracy trade-offs in the bilingual
condition can be due to a change in the ability to resist cognitive interference during word
A common belief is that there is a stage among children learning two languages
simultaneously during infancy, at which, they cannot differentiate their two languages. Almost all
studies show bilingual children mixing elements from both languages. These results are assumed
to provide evidence for a unitary, undifferentiated language system, known as the unitary language
system hypothesis. However, Genesee (1989) questioned this assumption, pointing out that
bilingual children developed differentiated language systems from the beginning and could use
their developing languages in contextually sensitive ways. The possible role of parents was
suggested as an area for future research.
The objective of a study by Bialystok (2001) was to evaluate the differences in
metalinguistic development between monolingual and bilingual children in terms of their
awareness of words, their syntax and phonology. The difference between monolinguals and
bilinguals with respect to the types of tasks they perform better are identified. In all three tasks,
there was no uniform superiority demonstrated by either mono or bilingual children. Different
degrees of analysis and control affecting the tasks differently among either mono or bilingual
children may account for the observed variations.
From a comparison of English and Mandarin Chinese monolinguals and Mandarin-English
bilinguals, Goetz (2003) notes a significant superiority of bilinguals to monolinguals in all tasks.
Greater inhibitory control, greater metalinguistic understanding, and a greater sensitivity to
sociolinguistic interactions with interlocutors were proposed as reasons for the bilinguals being
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
relatively superior. In a similar vein, in two studies involving identification of the alternative image
in a reversible figure, Bialystok & Shapero (2005) note that bilingual children were more
successful than monolinguals in seeing the other meaning in the images.
According to Bialystok (2007) some aspects of reading ability, notably phonological
awareness, are rooted in general cognitive mechanisms and transfer easily across languages,
whereas others, such as decoding, are more language dependent and language-specific and need
to be relearned with each new writing system. Writing systems and the differences between them
have a greater impact on children's acquisition of literacy than previously believed. Not
surprisingly, this relationship between writing and literacy has also been found to be related to
emerging ability with phonological awareness, and such factors have a subtle influence on
children's emerging concepts of print.
Based on their cumulative research, Bialystok, Craik, & Luk (2008) note that younger
participants performed certain tasks better than the older ones. This confirms the effect of the
ageing process. There is no difference between monolinguals and bilinguals regarding working on
memory tasks. Monolinguals perform better in lexical linguistic tasks. Bilinguals perform better
on executive control tasks. The author uses bilinguals from many languages with English as part
of the samples.
The benefits and costs of the bilingual experience on the cognitive and linguistic
performance of individuals across their lifespans are discussed by Bialystok & Craik (2010). The
costs are associated with bilinguals having lower formal language proficiency than monolinguals.
The benefits are related to the enhanced executive control in nonverbal tasks requiring conflict
In the studies by Bialystok (2010), the bilingual advantage is found not only for
traditionally demanding conditions, but also in processing complex stimuli in those tasks requiring
executive processing components for conflict resolution. These includ switching and updating,
even when no inhibition appeared to be involved. The significant effect of bilingualism in eight-
year old children as shown by superior performances in spatial complex reasoning tasks in the
context of academic achievement is discussed by Greenberg, Bellana, & Bialystok (2013). A
significant level of problem-solving ability is implied in these performances, which is an essential
requirement of high academic achievement.
The gradual development of metalinguistic advantages is noticed by Bialystok, Peets, &
Moreno (2014) among children in a French immersion programme. Tasks requiring more
executive control, in terms of grammaticality judgments, appear later. Performance in some tasks
improve with age, but do not exceed the performance of monolinguals. For example, advanced
verbal fluency develop only when bilinguals reach the fifth grade.
According to Blom, Küntay, Messer, Verhagen, & Leseman (2014), bilingualism increases
working memory among children from low social economic status in a Turkish-Dutch population.
Working memory tasks involving both storage and processing increase independently of language,
but proficiency is also related to verbal tasks. These findings support the hypothesis that experience
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
with dual language management influences the central executive control system that regulates
processing across a wide range of task demands.
Based on a research on bilingual deaf children, McQuarrie & Parrila (2014) conclude that
a signed-language phonological system facilitate the establishment of a “functional”
representational base to support reading acquisition for bilingual deaf learners.
According to Aguilar-Mediavilla, Buil-Legaz, Pérez-Castelló, Rigo-Carratalà, & Adrover-
Roig (2014), a sample of bilingual Spanish-Catalan children with specific language impairment
(SLI) exhibites a delay in processing abilities when they are aged six. Both comprehension and
letter identification are affected, but there is no problem with visual attention. Normally, at the
kindergarten stage, phonological awareness and verbal fluency can predict the reading outcomes
at school age.
In a research comparing the comprehension of active and passive English sentences in 7
10 year old bilingual and monolingual children, Filippi et al. (2015), obtain results supporting the
association of bilingualism with better accuracy in comprehending syntactically complex
sentences in the presence of linguistic noise.
Based on a meta-analysis, Prevoo, Malda, Mesman, & van IJzendoorn (2016) propose a
task-dependent bidirectional transfer hypothesis. The hypothesis states that the strength of cross-
language transfer depends on the type of language proficiency task and the type of school outcomes
which are aimed for. Therefore, stimulation of oral language proficiency in both languages might
improve the school outcomes of bilingual children with immigrant backgrounds.
Inhibitory control
The results of three studies reported by Bialystok & Martin (2004) indicate that bilinguals
have a more sufficient inhibitory control to ignore impinging perceptual information compared to
monolinguals. However, they are not more skilled in representation, which confirms earlier
findings. The critical difficulty in solving this task is the lack of ability by some subjects to ignore
an obsolete display feature.
Cross-language activity, selection of the language to speak, planning of speech, language
selection and the word production steps of bilinguals’ speeches using a single language are
discussed by Kroll (2008). Language selection models hold that bilinguals develop the ability to
selectively use the intended language even if both languages are active. In an alternative model,
both languages compete for selection, requiring that cross-language activity modulates to select
the required language only. In this case, the non-target language needs to be inhibited. Some works
report on such inhibitory mechanisms. Three studies are done by Martin-Rhee & Bialystok (2008)
to assess the degree and type of inhibitory control through which bilingual children demonstrate
an ability to excel in tasks (Simon tasks as cited in Bialystok , Craik, Klein, and Viswanathan,
2004) by ignoring misleading perceptual cues. The studies involve the activation of inhibitory
controls leading to an inhibition of habitual responses. Bilingual children maintain their advantage
on tasks that require the control of attention but show no advantage on tasks that require the
inhibition of responses.
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
MEG and genetic basis
In another study by Bialystok et al. (2005) magnet-encephalography (MEG) is used in
evaluating Simon tasks by Bilingual CantoneseEnglish, bilingual FrenchEnglish and
monolingual English speakers. Any faster reaction time for congruent trials compared to
incongruent trials is recorded. The Cantonese group is faster than the other two groups, while the
differences between the other two groups are not significant. According to MEG data, all three
groups are characterised by the same pattern of activity, which involve signal changes in left and
medial prefrontal areas. However, the two bilingual groups differ from the monolingual group due
to greater activity in superior and middle temporal, cingulate, and superior and inferior frontal
brain regions located largely in the left hemisphere. In the case of monolinguals, faster reaction
times are associated with activation in the middle frontal brain regions. Thus, the management of
the two language systems leads to systematic changes in frontal executive functions.
Recent neuro-imaging results appear to show that bilingualism can compensate for the
degeneration of other cognitive functions associated with dementia and thus postpone the onset of
symptoms, (Bialystok, 2015). However, based on a study on 1,067 Spanish-English bilinguals in
the Washington/Hamilton Heights Inwood Columbia Aging Project (WHICAP), Zahodne,
Schofield, Farrell, Stern, & Manly (2014) report that bilingualism is not independently associated
with rates of cognitive decline or dementia conversion.
Using whole head magnetoencephalography (MEG), Ferjan Ramírez, Ramírez, Clarke,
Taulu, & Kuhl (2017) investigate brain responses to Spanish and English syllables in Spanish-
English bilingual and English monolingual 11-month-old infants. Monolingual infants are
sensitive to English. On the other hand, bilingual infants are sensitive to both languages. Neural
responses achieved by a slower transition from acoustic to phonetic sound analysis, together with
an adaptive and advantageous response to increased variability in language input, have been
responsible for this dual sensitivity of the bilingual brain. These bilingual neural responses extend
into the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex, which may be related to the bilingual advantage in
executive function skills.
Allelic differences between monolinguals and bilinguals for frequencies of the
DRD2/ANKK1 taq1A polymorphism noticed by Hernandez, Greene, Vaughn, Francis, &
Grigorenko (2015) also raises the possibility of genetic differences between the two groups.
Negative results
From a comparative study of the effect of bilingualism on the language proficiency and
reading skill development in two systems of writing, Bialystok, McBride-Chang, & Luk (2005)
observe that both language exposure and instruction are responsible for the development of
phonological awareness. However, once established, these skills can be transferred across
languages in the case of both bilinguals and second language learners. On the other hand, decoding
ability develops separately for each language as a function of both proficiency and the nature of
instruction in that language. This skill is not transferred to the other language. Thus, there is no
overall effect which is obvious from this research on bilingualism effect on learning to read. The
performance depend entirely on the structure of the language, proficiency in that language and
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
instructional experiences with that writing system. The comparison involves monolingual English,
bilingual English-Chinese and Chinese children beginning to learn English as a second language.
In their study to evaluate the effect of bilingual advantage on inhibitory skills, Duñabeitia
et al. (2014) use verbal and non-verbal versions of the Stroop task. The results show that bilingual
and monolingual participants perform equally in the two types of tasks across all the indices of
inhibitory effect on the skills explored. The absence of difference extend to all the age ranges
tested. There is no modulatory effect from any of the independent factors. Thus, bilingual children
do not seem to exhibit any specific advantage in simple tasks which elicite inhibition as compared
to monolinguals.
Analysing executive function and cognitive reserve, Valian (2015) proposes that the term
“executive function” includes a complex set of cognitive processes, the components of which are
sometimes minimally correlated with each other, depending on the task. Bilingualism is
inconsistently correlated with superior executive function. There are non-linguistic ways of
improving executive function. Benefits from bilingualism, and all other cognitively challenging
activities, are inconsistent due to variations in the number and kinds of experiences of individuals
promoting superior executive function. The author contends that executive function is a narrow
interpretation how bilingualism hinders or helps cognition.
In a carefully matched large sample study, Antón et al. (2014) do not observe any bilingual
advantages at all. This finding supports the contention that the reported positive bilingual
advantages can be due to small or unmatched samples.
The meta-analysis of works done on bilingual advantage in executive functioning by Paap,
Johnson, & Sawi (2015) show that such advantages either do not exist or are noticeable only in
very specific and undetermined conditions. The studies conducted after 2011, either do not give
any result or utilise small sample sizes. Some others produce group differences when inappropriate
tests of the critical interaction or baselines are used. In a few others, demographic factors are
imperfectly matched. Also in a few other studies, questionable use of the analysis-of-covariance
is evident, apparently in order to control for problematic factors. Direct replications are under-
utilized and even if they are attempted, the results of seminal studies cannot be reproduced.
Measures and tasks used in the tests do not demonstrate convergent validity. Any significant
differences in performances may not have been able to differentiate any task-specific mechanism
from the domain-free abilities of executive functions. There is only modest support from brain
imaging studies in evaluating the bilingual-advantage hypothesis. This is mainly because the
neural differences do not align with the behavioural differences and/or the neural measures are
ambiguous with respect to the magnitudes required to cause increases or decreases in brain
performance. There are cumulative effects of confirmation biases and common research practices
which lead to a belief that a phenomenon exists when it really does not, or has inflated the
frequency and effect size of a genuine phenomenon that can emerge only occasionally and in
restricted and undetermined circumstances.
Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) Volume 8. Number 4. December 2017
Effect of Bilingualism on the Development of Cognitive Processes Alshahrani
Arab World English Journal
ISSN: 2229-9327
The number of works reporting negative results is far outnumbered by the number of works
indicating positive results for the hypothesis of bilingual advantages. Although the tendency will
be to conclude that bilingual advantage exists, the points raised by the critics regarding small
sample size, inadequacy of matching other variables, as well as measurement and analysis
problems need to be considered seriously in future research on the topic. After all, in the issue of
supporting one side or the other, the validity of the research work is arguably the most important
consideration in accepting or rejecting any research conclusions.
About the Author:
Dr. Abdulaziz Alshahrani is an assistant professor of Applied Linguistics, graduated from the
University of Newcastle, Australia. He was admitted to the degree of MA with distinction in
Applied Linguistics from the same institution. His works are related to the fields of language
acquisition, psycholinguistics, the roles of the social variables and other topics. At the moment, he
works as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Albaha University, in Saudi
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ISSN: 2229-9327
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ISSN: 2229-9327
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... In this context, the number of studies reporting negative outcomes (disadvantages) was found to be more than the number of studies indicating positive results (advantage). These studies are criticized due to reaching the results by small samples, lack of matching variables, and measurement and analysis problems (Alshahrani, 2017). In this research, are focused on these criticisms stressed by Alshahrani. ...
... Thus, negative and positive criticisms related to bilingualism were investigated by examining the researches. Because the refusal or acceptance of thought about bilingualism must be dependent on the validity of the research conducted in this domain (Alshahrani, 2017). By this way, it is aimed to clarify these criticisms. ...
... As a matter of fact, this result justifies the criticisms made before on this topic. Because in the previous research this problem situation has been criticized as reaching general conclusions based on small samples, insufficiency of matching variables determined in sample studies and frequent use of similar measurements and analyzes (Alshahrani, 2017). ...
Full-text available
Sixteen meta-analyses were conducted to examine relations of typically developing bilingual immigrant-background children’s oral language proficiency in their first and second language with the school outcomes of early literacy (k = 41), reading (k = 61), spelling (k = 9), mathematics (k = 9), and academic achievement (k = 9). Moderate to strong within-language relations were found for all school outcomes (.22 < r < .43), and cross-language relations for early literacy and reading (.12 < r < .22). Within-language relations were stronger than cross-language relations (.14 < d < .35). Only 6 out of 96 moderator effects tested were significant. Based on our findings, we propose a task-dependent bidirectional transfer hypothesis: The strength of cross-language transfer depends on the type of language proficiency task and the type of school outcome. Stimulating oral language proficiency in both languages can be a key factor in improving school outcomes of bilingual immigrant background children.
Full-text available
The hypothesis that managing two languages enhances general executive functioning is examined. More than 80% of the tests for bilingual advantages conducted after 2011 yield null results and those resulting in significant bilingual advantages tend to have small sample sizes. Some published studies reporting significant bilingual advantages arguably produce no group differences if more appropriate tests of the critical interaction or more appropriate baselines are used. Some positive findings are likely to have been caused by failures to match on demographic factors and others have yielded significant differences only with a questionable use of the analysis-of-covariance to "control" for these factors. Although direct replications are under-utilized, when they are, the results of seminal studies cannot be reproduced. Furthermore, most studies testing for bilingual advantages use measures and tasks that do not have demonstrated convergent validity and any significant differences in performance may reflect task-specific mechanism and not domain-free executive functions (EF) abilities. Brain imaging studies have made only a modest contribution to evaluating the bilingual-advantage hypothesis, principally because the neural differences do not align with the behavioral differences and also because the neural measures are often ambiguous with respect to whether greater magnitudes should cause increases or decreases in performance. The cumulative effect of confirmation biases and common research practices has either created a belief in a phenomenon that does not exist or has inflated the frequency and effect size of a genuine phenomenon that is likely to emerge only infrequently and in restricted and undetermined circumstances. Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
According to some estimates, more than half of the world’s population is multilingual to some extent. Because of the centrality of language use to human experience and the deep connections between linguistic and nonlinguistic processing, it would not be surprising to find that there are interactions between bilingualism and cognitive and brain processes. The present review uses the framework of experience-dependent plasticity to evaluate the evidence for systematic modifications of brain and cognitive systems that can be attributed to bilingualism. The review describes studies investigating the relation between bilingualism and cognition in infants and children, younger and older adults, and patients, using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods. Excluded are studies whose outcomes focus primarily on linguistic abilities because of their more peripheral contribution to the central question regarding experience-dependent changes to cognition. Although most of the research discussed in the review reports some relation between bilingualism and cognitive or brain outcomes, several areas of research, notably behavioral studies with young adults, largely fail to show these effects. These discrepancies are discussed and considered in terms of methodological and conceptual issues. The final section proposes an account based on “executive attention” to explain the range of research findings and to set out an agenda for the next steps in this field.
In spite of early warnings of dire consequences of bilingualism for children's cognitive development, research in the past 50 years has revealed that bilingualism is in fact a positive developmental experience. These benefits were more recently shown to extend across the life span. New research is incorporating neuroimaging to determine the brain bases of these effects and exploring the possibility that the beneficial effects of bilingualism can compensate for degeneration of other cognitive functions that are associated with dementia, thereby postponing symptom onset. Keywords: bilingualism; cognition; cognitive functions; dementia; children; neuroimaging
Language experience shapes infants' abilities to process speech sounds, with universal phonetic discrimination abilities narrowing in the second half of the first year. Brain measures reveal a corresponding change in neural discrimination as the infant brain becomes selectively sensitive to its native language(s). Whether and how bilingual experience alters the transition to native language specific phonetic discrimination is important both theoretically and from a practical standpoint. Using whole head magnetoencephalography (MEG), we examined brain responses to Spanish and English syllables in Spanish-English bilingual and English monolingual 11-month-old infants. Monolingual infants showed sensitivity to English, while bilingual infants were sensitive to both languages. Neural responses indicate that the dual sensitivity of the bilingual brain is achieved by a slower transition from acoustic to phonetic sound analysis, an adaptive and advantageous response to increased variability in language input. Bilingual neural responses extend into the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex, which may be related to their previously described bilingual advantage in executive function skills. A video abstract of this article can be viewed at:
A unique feature of this book is that chapters favor that line of cognitive linguistics which makes a clear distinction between real world and projected world. Information conveyed by language must be about the projected world. Both the experimental results and the systematic claims in this volume call for a weak form of whorfianism. Also, chapters add some relatively unexplored issues of bilingualism to the well-known ones, such as gender systems in the bilingual mind, context and task, synergic concepts, blending, the relationship between lexical categorization and ontological categorization among others.