Bilingual education and intelligence

This text was written for us by Dr Evy Woumans from Ghent University (Belgium), who investigated long-term effect of becoming bilingual on the development of general intelligence and cognitive control. Many thanks for your contribution, Evy!


Picture credits to Getty Images.

Bilingual education and intelligence

Dr Evy Woumans

In the French-speaking part of Belgium, second language immersion programmes are on the rise. In Brussels and Wallonia, there are now over 300 schools that offer this bilingual form of education. Pupils enrolled in these schools receive part of their curriculum in a foreign language (often Dutch or English). They do not explicitly learn this new language in specific language classes, but acquire it implicitly during other classes, such as geography and maths. Hence the term ‘immersion’, which may start as early as the third year of kindergarten and where the second language curriculum can vary from 20 up to 70%. But, I can hear many ask, is this a suitable or advisable situation for these children? Should they not focus on their mother tongue first and perhaps afterwards acquire another language? And what about the content of these classes they receive in another language? Do they actually pick it up?

About a hundred years ago, scientists would have told these immersion children’s parents that they were out of their minds. The general consensus then was that multilingual education was detrimental for a child’s development, both linguistically and mentally. Many studies reported several disadvantages for bilingual children in terms of cognition and language proficiency. However, it would later be revealed that the methodology of these studies was very flawed and the comparison between monolinguals and bilinguals was confounded by several factors. For instance, mostly stemming from immigrant families, bilingual children often had a much lower socioeconomic status. And lower socioeconomic status is associated with lower scores of intelligence and other deficits. There was also no explicit definition of the term ‘bilingualism’, which meant that some children who had a foreign-sounding surname were also classified as bilingual, even if they were not. Other children, again commonly immigrants, who were only at the most early stages of acquiring their second language, were at a disadvantage because all tests were conducted in this language, so that they often did not even comprehend what was expected of them.

The sixties introduced a turning point for research into this topic of bilingualism and development, when one study pointed out these previous flaws and tried to control for them. The difference in outcome between this study and the previous ones could not have been more pronounced. Instead of finding bilingual disadvantages, the authors actually reported better scores for bilinguals on both verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests. These results were later confirmed by other studies, but unfortunately, the damage was already done. In the eye of the general public, bilingualism was some type of evil best avoided. And this view is still not uncommon today.

Nevertheless, more and more studies are now reporting cognitive advantages for bilinguals over monolinguals. Our own study, which was conducted among the abovementioned Belgian kindergarten children, actually demonstrated that those enrolled in an immersion programme became smarter. What we did was take two groups of monolinguals and test them employing a verbal French fluency test and a non-verbal intelligence test before the start of their third year of kindergarten. One of the groups remained monolingual, following the traditional monolingual programme (in French), the other gradually learnt Dutch through the second language immersion programme. At baseline (i.e. before the start of third year kindergarten), both groups performed equally on the verbal test as well as the intelligence test. They also had a similar socioeconomic, developmental, and linguistic background. At the end of the school year, both groups were tested again and we established they had progressed similarly for verbal fluency in French. This finding indicated that learning a second language did not impair first language development in the immersion group. But the most baffling finding was that these immersion children suddenly obtained much higher non-verbal intelligence scores, both compared to the scores of their monolingual peers and to their own initial scores. Furthermore, other recent research that has focused more on the content of the classes, has demonstrated that children just as easily learn content when classes are taught in a foreign language. Moreover, for classes such as maths and algebra, immersion children once more seem to be advantaged.

These results demonstrate that bilingualism should no longer be feared. In contrast, it seems to bring about cognitive advantages, which can be observed in the stages of development as well as in those of decline. It appears that even the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease manifest themselves much later in bilinguals than in monolinguals. These benefits are most probably a direct results of the language control bilinguals need to practise. Although they are proficient in two languages, only one language can be produced at one time, depending on the communication context and the language knowledge of the interlocutors. Therefore bilinguals always have to suppress one of their languages in order to activate and produce the other. This requires lots of cognitive effort, of which bilinguals are often not even aware. Still they exercise it all the time, training their brain cells and making them more flexible and adaptable.


Further reading

Darcy, N. T. (1953). A review of the literature on the effects of bilingualism upon the measurement of intelligence. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 82, 21-57.

Mielicki, M. K., Kacinik, N. A., & Wiley, J. (2017). Bilingualism and symbolic abstraction: Implications for algebra learning. Learning and Instruction, 49, 242-250.

Peal, E. & Lambert, W. (1962). The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 76, 1-23.

Woumans, E., Santens, P., Sieben, A., Versijpt, J., Stevens, M., & Duyck, W. (2015). Bilingualism delays clinical manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 18 (3), 568-574.

Woumans, E., Surmont, J., Struys, E., & Duyck, W. (2016). The longitudinal effect of bilingual immersion schooling on cognitive control and intelligence. Language Learning, 66 (2), 76-91.


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