Are Benefits of Being Bilingual Greatly Overstated?

Being bilingual does offer cognitive benefits. Exactly what those benefits are, however, may have been overstated and misconstrued.

Being bilingual does offer cognitive benefits. Exactly what those benefits are, however, may have been overstated and misconstrued during the last several years, when many experiments popularized the notion that bilingual, or multilingual, people had unique cognitive abilities.


To test the accuracy of claims made about the cognitive powers of bilingual people, Angela de Bruin, Psychology Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh, performed a meta-analysis of academic papers presented at one-hundred and sixty-nine conferences between 1999 and 2012.

Previously, a careful review of the evidence by psychologist Ellen Bialystok in 2012 firmly supported claims that bilingual individuals were more creative and better at switching between tasks (because their brains were used to switching between languages).

But because papers presented at academic conferences address in-progress research, they cover a wider spectrum of work than studies which are published. Of the conference papers de Bruin analyzed, about half provided evidence in favor of special bilingual cognition while the other half refuted such claims. 

When it came time to publish, however, the numbers changed. Sixty-eight percent of studies suggesting a bilingual advantage were published in a scientific journal, compared to twenty-nine percent of those that refuted the claim.

"Our overview," de Bruin concluded, "shows that there is a distorted image of the actual study outcomes on bilingualism, with researchers (and media) believing that the positive effect of bilingualism on nonlinguistic cognitive processes is strong and unchallenged."

This does not imply that being bilingual is cognitively neutral, however. In the analysis conducted by Bialystok, regardless of cognitive level, prior occupation, or education, bilinguals were diagnosed with Alzheimer's 4.3 years later than monolinguals. It seems the cognitive benefit of speaking two or more languages is equal to the benefit of actively learning any new task.

Princeton neuroscientist and Big Think expert Sam Wang discusses studies in which more specific benefits were found and how they often didn't relate to language learning itself:

Read more at the New Yorker

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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