Bilingualism Benefits: Early, Late, or Never?

Bilingualism Benefits: Early, Late, or Never?

By: Eleanor Carson

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Being a Canadian English language educator in a university in Japan, I sometimes ask my students what they think about learning a second language and, in particular, when they think language learning should begin. Over the years, these young adults (most of whom are 18-20 year old Japanese university students learning English as a foreign language (EFL) have told me several reasons for and against learning a second or additional language and, if they were in favor, the age at which they believed learning should begin. As one might expect, these sentiments often reflected learners’ anticipation of their own final grade in their EFL class. If they anticipated high scores, their ideas generally supported developing bilingualism and, often, starting early; while, if they worried that their EFL class scores might negatively impact their overall grade average, they preferred a late start. Indeed, some were skeptical about the need to study a foreign language at all. Out of curiosity, I asked them why they felt as they did.

My Japanese EFL learners supported their beliefs with the following principal reasons: On one hand, some learners said that children should begin learning the L2 later in their school years. They claimed that children need to learn their L1 first, since learning an L2 can interfere with learning an L1. On the other hand, some learners favored starting to learn an L2 early. They claimed that it is easier for children than for adults to learn a second language. Finally, some learners questioned the value of learning a second language at all. They claimed that bilingualism has no benefits beyond actually speaking the second language. Whose beliefs do the research findings support?

First, it is important to be clear what I mean by the “L1” and “L2.” Since I am writing from the perspective of learners, unless otherwise specified, the L1 refers to the learner’s first or native language (ex., for Japanese university students in foreign language (FL) classes, Japanese), and the L2 means the learner’s second or other language (ex., for Japanese FL university students, English, Chinese, or German). It is more complicated when referring to the languages used by immigrants. For immigrants, the L1 is the immigrant learner’s home language (for example, German) and their L2 is the community language they are immigrating into (for example, English in Toronto or French in Quebec City). Finally, “bilingual” means the ability to use two (or more) languages, regardless of proficiency.

Favoring a Late L2 Start

Learners favoring a late L2 start objected to an early start because they claimed that children should learn their L1 first. This belief was grounded by the following rationale. First, some learners thought that learning an L2 impairs their ability to learn, especially to learn their L1. Next, some learners thought that learning an L2 can only happen with a solid L1 foundation. Finally, some learners thought that when two languages are learned at the same time, the languages could be confused with each other. Each possibility will be addressed in turn.

L2 learning is an overwhelming cognitive demand

Some students believed that learning an L2 is a disadvantage because it impairs their ability to learn, including learning their community’s L1. This notion actually has a precedent in research. Previous researchers had claimed that bilingualism was related to decreased cognitive performance. Educators conducting research in the 1920s–1950s labeled this notion the “the problem of the bilingual child” (e.g. Smith, 1923, cf. Antoniou, 2019, p. 396). Based on IQ tests that largely tested vocabulary knowledge in a language unfamiliar to many participating immigrant children, researchers believed that bilingual children’s foreign language interfered with learning, because bilinguals did not know as many L1 words as monolinguals and learners spent too much mental energy distinguishing between languages. Researchers then overextended the findings to claim that bilingualism interfered with learning and led to learning deficits. Consequently, at one time, bilingualism and multilingualism were thought to cause hardship and possibly retardation among young children (Antoniou, 2019), as discussed by Brenda Gorman in Myths About Bilingual Children. These studies are now considered to have serious design flaws because many used vocabulary-dependent IQ tests to make claims that bilingualism degraded intelligence and they did not account for confounding factors such as socioeconomic status, age, degree of bilingualism, or immigration.

Contrary to the findings of this early research, bilingualism has been found to have cognitive advantages. Seminal research conducted by Peal and Lambert (1962) compensated for previous design flaws as they compared degree of bilingualism, attitudes towards the community’s L1, and the school achievement of 10-year-old school children from six French language schools in Montreal. The participants were balanced bilinguals (about equal in proficiency in French and English) compared with monolingual students (proficient in only French); all other, unbalanced, bilinguals were excluded. English L1 speakers administered tests to measure English verbal ability. All other instructions for questions covering nonverbal intelligence and attitudes were given in French by French L1 speakers. Results revealed that bilinguals performed better than monolinguals on both verbal and nonverbal tests “involving concept-formation or symbolic flexibility” (Peal & Lambert, 1962, p. 141). The researchers suggested that bilingual children might have performed better due to having a more diversified set of mental abilities than the monolinguals. Thus, this landmark study overturned prior beliefs that bilingualism impaired learners’ cognitive or learning abilities, particularly with reference to learning the L1 of their community.

L1 required to be foundation for L2

Next, some learners I talked to believed that children must focus on learning their L1 first. They felt that learning an L2 can only occur once a good L1 foundation has been attained. For example, considered from the basic level of words linked to their corresponding concepts, by implication, the L2 must be joined to the L1 and then to concepts; learning an L2 is assumed to be a case of translation. While there is evidence that L2 words are often learned in the early stages by linking them to L1 words and then to their concepts, with repeated use the links between the L2 words and the concepts become strong enough that L1 mediation (translation) is no longer needed and the original concept itself adapts to accommodate nuances of the L2 word linked to it (Kroll & Stewart, 1994). Therefore, while knowing L1 words can help build a vocabulary of L2 words, they are not essential. It is possible for L2 words to be linked directly to concepts and not require L1 mediation. Furthermore, even if learning L2 words occurs via the mediation of L1 words, with sufficient practice and proficiency, L2 words can link directly to concepts without the aid of L1 mediation.

These ideas are illustrated below.

Note. “Revised Hierarchical Model” adapted from Kroll & Stewart, 1994, p. 158. Solid arrow links show strong connections, while dotted arrow links show weak connections that can gain strength with fluency.

However, the ability to mediate L2 words via L1 words to their concepts was not the only reason learners felt it was important to learn their L1 first. The second reason, social rather than linguistic or cognitive in nature, was that they needed their L1 to function in their L1 (home) community. They believed that time spent learning the L2 would take away from time spent learning their home L1.

There is evidence to support their claim that monolingual children know the L1 better than bilingual children (for example, they have been found to know more L1 words than bilinguals). However, as explained by Bialystok in this video, this research finding is flawed; the disparity is only true if only L1 words are counted. The difference between the number of L1 words known by monolinguals and bilinguals is small, and most bilingual children’s L1 vocabulary overlaps with that of their L2. If the L2 words are counted as well, bilingual children know as many, if not more words, than their monolingual cohorts.

Furthermore, the existence of very young children exhibiting balanced multilingualism demonstrates that more than one language can be learned at the same time without the previous existence of a single L1. For example, a 3-year-old boy can be observed in this video both understanding and responding to questions when speaking Mandarin Chinese, English, and Hakka.

Bilingualism might cause confusion between L1 and L2

Learners favoring a late start might be concerned that the L2 may become confused with their L1. Similarly, some parents worry that raising their children to be balanced bilinguals might cause problems for their children. However, children can learn two languages at the same time without becoming confused. For example, a male colleague told me that he and his wife were raising their daughter to use both English and Japanese, using the “One Parent One Language” approach (Barron-Hauwaert, 2004). He spoke only English to his daughter, while his wife spoke only Japanese, and at home they spoke English to each other. He said that their little girl knew words for the same objects in both languages. For example, she knew that daddy said “chair” while mommy said “isu.” The little girl always talked with her father in English and her mother in Japanese and was always aware of the appropriate language to use.

This is not to say mix-ups don’t happen. The author herself (an English-speaking Canadian with an uncertain grasp of French) fell prey to this embarrassing problem, which is likely familiar to many readers. When responding to a compliment by a Japanese woman about my Japanese language ability, I said, “Nihongo ga mal desu,” making a French Canadian male colleague who witnessed the exchange grin. The Japanese lady was thoroughly confused, I had the sinking feeling that something I’d said was wrong, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that “mal” was French for “bad;” I had meant to say, “warui desu,” (which was probably ungrammatical, anyway). But look again. I did not mistakenly mix my L2 and L1. I mixed up words in my two L2s, since I had didn’t have a firm grasp of either yet. Confusion seems to occur only with words and grammar in inadequately learned languages, but bilingualism itself does not cause language confusion.

In fact, there are several advantages for learners starting to learn their L2 later in life. Children may be better at learning language sounds, but older learners are better at understanding explicit grammar instruction. By the time learners have reached their teen years, their brains have cognitively matured compared to younger children, and teens can benefit from explicitly taught grammar and explicit feedback about their errors. Adolescents and adults can also use their well-established L1 to connect new L2 words to the concepts originally established through their L1, making learning more efficient (Kroll & Stewart, 1994). Additionally, as Mia Nacamulli comments in the benefits of a bilingual brain, those who learned a second language in adulthood are less emotional and more rational when facing problems in the L2 than in their L1. Finally, there are cognitive and neurological benefits to bilingualism even for mature and elderly adults, as discussed later in this article.

In effect, there may be different benefits from bilingual development, whether one starts early or late. Benefits from learning an L2 vary with age, because teens and adults are better at understanding explicit grammar instruction than children are, but that does not necessarily mean they are better than young children at learning grammar implicitly from exposure and experience. Next, I consider the potential benefits of an early start.

Favoring an Early L2 Start

Learners favoring an early start to second language learning said that elementary-aged children learn languages better than learners in university, as suggested by Judith Kroll in The Bilingual Brain. While this video shows that there is merit to this claim, due to limitations on older learners who attempt to acquire a native-like accent, Laura-Ann Petitto suggests in When is the best time to learn language? that learners have missed the point if they believe that language learning is successful only if one acquires a native-like accent. However, there are other advantages to an early start, as outlined next.

In fact, some research supports the students who prefer an early start. Many researchers believe that children can learn additional languages well enough to acquire not only a native accent, but also good grammar and a pragmatic understanding of the language sufficient to pass for native speakers, a theory called the Critical Period Hypothesis (Long, 2005), one of the most controversial theories in SLA. These researchers argue that, between the age of two and puberty, a child’s ability to acquire an L2 is superior compared to after this period.

The decline in the ability to acquire native-like L2 abilities has been attributed to several factors. First, as young children mature, their brain structure alters through brain lateralization, in which cognitive abilities tend to focus in either the left or right hemispheres of the brain (Lenneberg, 1967). Second, localization within hemispheres for phonological learning further constrains language learning, suggesting that accent acquisition tends to be fixed by puberty (Seliger, 1978). Third, the physical development of muscles used to speak was seen to be set at an earlier age than the development of non-physical cognitive skills (Scovel, 1988). Finally, increasing myelination of neural axons could reduce plasticity in language areas of the brain prior to puberty (Pulvermüller & Schumann, 1994).

"Some researchers have argued that the critical period occurs in phases."
Eleanor Carson
TT Author

While some researchers have presented evidence to support the critical period hypothesis, other evidence has revealed that the end of the critical period is far from clear. Some researchers argued that the critical period occurs in phases, with optimal accent acquisition occurring before age seven and slightly decreasing language learning ability to age 12 before an abrupt decline in language learning makes language learning cognitively challenging (Johnson & Newport, 1989). This decline has been attributed to decreasing cerebral plasticity (Penfield & Roberts, 2014). Conversely, recent research has called the early start of decline at 12 years of age into question, with evidence found to support a later decline in plasticity as late as age 17 (Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker, 2018). The evidence supporting the critical period hypothesis is still debatable, and may only apply to native-like speaking rather than to successful communication.

So, who is right? Actually, research evidence and our own experience suggests that language learning can occur at any point in life, and may even begin pre-birth (Singleton & Ryan, 2004). Furthermore, acquiring a native-like accent, something children are more proficient at than adults, should not be the defining feature of successful L2 learning. While acquiring a native-like accent is laudable, successful L2 learning is not limited to accent. Instead, L2 learners should focus on being able to communicate with other L2 users. Indeed, it is possible to become an L2 user at any age (Cook, 2005), as he discusses in Multicompetence and SLA. Whether it is better for L2 learners to start early or late depends on the reason for which an L2 is learned. It appears that learners who favor an early start are correct if their purpose is to acquire native-like L2 abilities, but I argue that this is a limited goal compared to developing the ability to use the L2–which can be developed at any age.

However, whether or not learners can become successful L2 users is a moot point if they do not actually have the opportunity to use the L2. Given the preceding theoretical positions, are there any benefits for learners to learn an L2 even if they do not anticipate having to use it in their future lives?

Benefits of Bilingualism

Some students questioned whether an L2 was even worth learning, since they did not anticipate having to use the L2 in their current or future lives. Moreover, students who had answered the questions–is learning an L2 good and when is it best to start?–rarely think beyond whether they will actually have a use for the L2. Both sets of learners would be shocked to discover that there are substantial–and substantiated–reasons to learn an L2 even if they do not anticipate a future that includes its use.

There are many potential benefits to competence in more than one language, as Cook discusses in The Second Language (L2) User. Since linguistic competence implies the ability to use language appropriately, it is important to distinguish between the learning of two languages and the use of two languages. Many of the research findings on bilingual benefits focus on learning rather than using two or more languages, so some potential bilingual benefits may hinge on whether the languages are used or not. This point may help to explain some of the inconsistencies researchers have reported about the conceivable benefits of bilingualism. With this caveat in mind, I will describe potential bilingual benefits found to reside in cognitive behavior, brain structure growth, and neural activity.

Bilingualism and cognitive behavior

Researchers have found evidence that bilinguals tend to experience cognitive behavioral benefits including enhanced abilities in thinking–and that this can influence quality of life throughout one’s years, as Mia Nacamulli describes in the benefits of a bilingual brain. Specifically, bilingualism has been related to improved control of executive functions, which are the building blocks of thought, learning, and character. Executive functions, also known as executive control or cognitive control, have a wide range of practical influence: “Executive functions (EFs) make possible mentally playing with ideas; taking the time to think before acting; meeting novel, unanticipated challenges; resisting temptations; and staying focused” (Diamond, 2013, p. 135).

So, how could bilingualism build better control of executive function? Of the three core EFs–inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (Diamond, 2013)–bilingualism appears to be most closely related to inhibition, task switching, and conflict resolution, which are also implicated in cognitive flexibility (Costa, Hernandez, & Sebastian-Galles, 2016). Executive control is the ability to choose the focus of one’s mental energy, and in the case of bilingualism, to selectively attend to one language while inhibiting or suppressing another language (Antoniou, 2019). Executive control is crucial because both languages are always active in a bilingual person’s mind regardless of the language being used at any given moment, as evidenced by the influence of words in one language on available words in the other language (Kroll, Dussias, Bogulski, & Kroff, 2012; Kroll & Bialystok, 2013). Executive control improves with practice and proficiency, can be observed through brain activity, and changes the structure of the brain. While executive control enhances all related cognitive systems, it is especially influential with language. Bilingual communication exercises the ability to focus one’s mental energy during communication in an L1 despite distracting L2 alternatives and vice versa, and thereby fosters executive control, an ability that grows with proficiency.

Evidence supporting enhanced executive control in bilinguals has been championed by Bialystok, as detailed in her invited lecture on How bilingualism helps your brain, the “Deep” video choice for this issue. Using a variety of behavioral measures across several research projects, she was able to show that bilinguals had better executive control than monolinguals. Bilinguals were able to ignore distractors and could react to visual signals faster than monolinguals. Since neural pathways are strengthened with use, her results have implications for more efficient neural activity, increased brain plasticity, and growth in some areas of the brain, implications borne out by other research (for example, Marian & Spivey, 2003).

Bilingualism, brain structure growth, and plasticity

Bilingualism has also been found to influence brain plasticity because the exercise of executive control to focus on linguistic functions of one language despite the competing linguistic functions of another language is associated with alterations in the structure and function of some areas of the brain. Anatomical and neural activity changes have been observed to occur with the experience of language training and use. Findings from four areas of research have been touched on. First, changes include increased grey matter density (concentration of neurons) and white matter integrity (connections between neurons), both of which are structural changes related to sustained and effortful activity accompanying language learning. Second, these structural and functional changes can be found for young children, young adults, and mature adults and are sensitive to the age of language acquisition. Third, these changes can occur quickly, even with short-term language learning. Fourth, changes vary with differing levels of L2 proficiency, different language characteristics, and distances between languages (Li, Legault, & Litcofsky, 2014). Changes in brain anatomy related to brain activation that accompanies language learning suggest that measurable and observable neurological evidence may support the claim that bilingualism is intrinsically beneficial.

What evidence supports the claim that the use of more than one language changes the anatomy and function of the brain? Of the vast field of research reported in the literature, I refer to only one result as an example of results that have far-ranging repercussions. Researchers have used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow) to measure brain activity in older bilinguals. They found lower blood oxygenation level-dependent responses for bilinguals than for matched monolinguals. This finding suggests that information processing might be easier and more efficient for bilinguals than for monolinguals (Gold, Kim, Johnson, Kryscio, & Smith, 2013). The first research to describe the brain-preserving benefits older bilinguals might have because of processing information more efficiently than monolinguals called these benefits cognitive reserve, or the ability to withstand damage to the brain. Bilinguals’ increased efficiency and cognitive reserve, compared to that of monolinguals, could strengthen their ability to think even when developing neurological decline.

Bilingualism, neural activity and decline, and cognitive reserve

Neurological areas (ex. Brain Anatomy Image below) observed to be related to language systems, such as the prefrontal cortex (Costa, Hernandez, & Sebastian-Galles, 2016), have been found to be associated with increased cognitive reserve (Abutalebi & Green, 2016). Cognitive reserve is important for delaying the onset and progression of symptoms of dementia, an important consideration that is briefly considered next.

Dr. Judith Kroll argues that Bilingualism May Delay Dementia. It is debatable whether cognitive reserve prevents the progression of cognitive decline associated with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, but it appears to stave off the symptoms. Timothy Huzar describes the symptoms associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s in What are the early signs of dementia?: difficulty understanding visual stimuli, weakening ability to write or draw pictures, loss of memory, limitations in forming new memories, confusion, an inability to solve problems, emotional instability, loss of impulse control, personality changes, and social withdrawal. These symptoms can be exacerbated by other health issues such as macular degeneration, cataracts, arthritis, and incessant tinnitus. The resulting confusion is illustrated in the Virtual Dementia Tour®. Symptoms of cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s in bilinguals were delayed for between four (Bialystok, Craik, & Freedman, 2007), and 4.5 years (Alladi et al., 2013) compared to matched monolinguals. It is likely that cognitive reserve includes having a wider neural network for bilinguals than for monolinguals, thus giving bilinguals more links to locate memories and exercise executive control than monolinguals (Antoniou, 2019).

In my opinion, an alternative explanation for the benefits of cognitive reserve and its relationship to executive control is that the patient can selectively focus despite the distractions associated with dementia, such as tinnitus. While neurological decline progresses for both bilinguals and monolinguals, bilinguals do not become symptomatic as early as monolinguals. As Kroll observes in Bilingualism May Delay Dementia, no drug has been found that can delay the onset of symptoms of dementia, and the additional four to five years are of immense value to patients, caregivers, medical personnel, and society at large.

From the preceding line of reasoning, we can see the potential for cognitive benefits of bilingualism that are practical, far-ranging, and support thinking ability. Whether or not the L2 is actually used in one’s daily life, it is worth learning an L2 to expand one’s world view and enhance one’s human condition. Learners who question the usefulness of learning an L2 might be reassured that it is not a waste of time.

Conclusion

Does being bilingual make you smarter? No, according to a panel discussion on Language and Learning with Bialystok. Does being bilingual make you mentally more resilient? Yes, it appears so. Could this be of value to learners who are required to learn an L2 despite having little opportunity to use it in their local context? I think it could. Advantages include an expanded world view and cognitive benefits. Whether L2 study occurs early or late, to a superficial or proficient level, bilingualism has value beyond its practical application in communicating with L2 speakers of other languages. As Marian observed: “It’s never too late to learn another language. The benefits can be seen even after just one semester of studying.” Becoming bilingual is only a, “waste of time,” if you do not know about the secret treasures it gives the brain.

With much appreciated permission from Dan Piraro, Bizarro.com

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Eleanor Carson has been teaching English in Japan for over 10 years. She recently obtained a PhD in Applied Linguistics at Hiroshima City University, and currently teaches EFL classes at Matsuyama University. Her research interests include bilingualism, medium of instruction, WTC, student autonomy, and motivation in EFL contexts. <[email protected]>

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