Are bilingual children smarter?
When it comes to speech development, there is a significant difference between bilingual and monolingual children. But does that mean that children with more languages are smarter, asks psychologist and mother of three bilingual children, Zsuzsi Papp.
For a long time, it was thought that children of bilingual or multilingual parents would start speaking later and have slower speech development, because they would have to learn twice as many words and grammatical structures. This view has been overturned and, in fact, bilingualism can have benefits:
– Social and cognitive flexibility: For children growing up in a bilingual environment it is only natural that things have multiple names. Around the age of one, bilingual babies find it easier to switch their attention between places and people, and their tasks-solving skills are more flexible. Bilingual pre-schoolers are more likely to recognize a rule in a game and can switch between rules more flexibly than their monolingual peers. According to Hungarian research, bilingual children develop their naive theory of mind – taking the point of view of others and attribute intentions, goals, knowledge to it – sooner than monolingual ones. Thus, cognitive flexibility is also related to social fluency and adaptation.
– It is easier to learn another language: Different languages have different sound structures, for example in Hungarian there are quite a lot of sounds (e.g. a, o, u and their long versions) that non-Hungarian speakers can recognize, separate and learn only with great difficulty. We are not born with the ability to distinguish phonemes; babies develop this skill at 6-8 months (except for future dyslexics who have difficulty separating phonemes). So bilingual babies start to learn a language with an already wider set of phonemes, so in the future they will be able to learn other languages more easily with less accent. The same goes for grammatical systems. According to researchers, a single network for both languages develops in the brains of bilingual children, and this network is used later to learn additional languages. While if a monolingual child learns a new language later, he or she will form another brain network for each new language.
These research findings do not say that bilingual children are smarter than their monolingual peers, but rather that they can achieve the same linguistic development as monolingual children in a field made more difficult by bilingualism. As a result of adaptation, they can more easily accept new information and become more open and flexible in some respects. In my experience, they don’t feel lost in a foreign language environment, not understanding something first is an everyday experience for them.
Jordanidisz, Ágnes (2011): The relationship between reading learning and phonological awareness in bilingual children. https://www.prae.hu/prae/gyosze.php?menu_id=102&jid=37&jaid=543
Proctor, C.P., Silverman, R.D., Harring, J.R. et al. Read Writ (2012) 25: 1635. The role of vocabulary depth in predicting reading comprehension among English monolingual and Spanish–English bilingual children in elementary school. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-011-9336-5
Kovelman, I., Baker, S., & Petitto, L. (2008). Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11(2), 203-223. doi:10.1017/S1366728908003386
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