The Benefits of Multilingualism – Full Article

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The Benefits of Multilingualism - Raising Bilingual Children

By Michał B. Paradowski
Institute of Applied Linguistics,
University of Warsaw
Photo Credit: Anthony Kelley

To have another language is to possess a second soul.
— Charlemagne (742/7 – 814), King of the Franks

Multilingualism is the natural potential available to every normal human being rather than an unusual exception; it is only the environmental factors which may fail to provide the opportunity to learn another language that produce monolingual speakers: “Given the appropriate environment, two languages are as normal as two lungs” (Cook 2002b:23); “A theory purporting to account for universal language learnability cannot be considered adequate if it excludes the non-monolingual speakers of this world” (Satterfield 1999:137).

Multilingualism need not even require the ability to speak two unrelated languages; a user of e.g. the ‘literary’ and a vernacular/dialectal variety is already multicompetent, with today only “a handful of isolated pockets of ‘pure’ monolinguals, now hard to find even in the mountains of Papua New Guinea” (Cook 2002b:23). At the same time, multicompetence does not require perfect fluency in all the languages at one’s command; thus, setting the boundary would probably be a mission impossible. We might quote Michael Byram here, according to whose theory of intercultural competence fully mastering a TL is not advisable, as then the speaker loses his original perspective.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

— Thomas Stearns Eliot (1922) The Waste Land (8;12)

The advantages that multilinguals exhibit over monolinguals are not restricted to linguistic knowledge only, but extend outside the area of language (Cook 1999, 2002b), and the substantial long-lived cognitive, social, personal, academic, and professional benefits of enrichment bilingual contexts have been well documented (Thomas & Collier 1998). Children and older persons learning foreign languages have been demonstrated to:

  • have a keener awareness (Galambos & Goldin-Meadow 1990; Ewert 2006, forthc.) and sharper perception of language (enhanced metalingual abilities, e.g. detection of anomalous sentences; Bialystok 2001). Foreign language learning “enhances children’s understanding of how language itself works and their ability to manipulate language in the service of thinking and problem solving” (Cummins 1981);
  • be better at judging how many words there are in a sentence (whatever the practical utility of this skill);
  • be more capable of separating meaning from form (Ben Zeev 1977; Bialystok 1986);
  • learn more rapidly in their L1, e.g. to read (Yelland et al. 1993), with a high positive correlation between FL study and improved reading scores (for children of both average and below average intelligence, Garfinkel & Tabor 1991), as well as improved performance in other basic L1 skills, regardless of race, gender, or academic level (Dumas 1999);
  • be more efficient communicators in the L1;
  • be consistently better able to deal with distractions, which may help offset age-related declines in mental dexterity (Bialystok et al. 2004); their greater control needed to perform well on the experimental Simon task being accounted for either by the ability to hold two languages in the mind concurrently without allowing words and grammar slip from one into the other, or by superior working memories for information storage and processing;
  • develop a markedly better language proficiency in, sensitivity to, and understanding of their mother tongue (e.g. Johnson et al. 1963). For instance, graduating high school seniors with two or more years of FL study significantly outperformed non-FL students on achievement tests in their L1 (Bastian 1980; cf. also e.g. Van de Craen et al.’s (2006) account of children in multilingual schools in Walloon vs. their monolingual peers, and Nespor (1971) for an increase in expressive L1 oral productivity);
  • develop a greater vocabulary size over age (cf. Kosmidis 2006), including their L1 (Johnson et al. 1963), consistently scoring higher in measures of L1 English vocabulary, particularly when the language studied has Latinate roots (Masciantonio 1977), contrary to the fear that bilingual children may be ‘late talkers’;
  • have a better ear for listening and sharper memories (Ratte 1968; Lapkin et al. 1990);
  • be better language learners in institutionalized learning contexts because of more developed language-learning capacities owing to the more complex linguistic knowledge and higher language awareness (Wolff 2006); thus, FL ‘best practice’ reinforces the L1 English language content of the general classroom (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004);
  • have increased ability to apply more reading strategies effectively due to their greater experience in language learning and reading in two—or more—different languages (Nayak et al. 1990), with TL proficiency linearly correlated with reading strategy use (Hong & Leavell 2006), also in their native language (Garfinkel & Tabor 1991; Horstmann 1980; Johnson et al. 1963);
  • develop not only better verbal, but also spatial abilities (Diaz 1983);
  • parcel up and categorize meanings in different ways, e.g. colors (see footnote #1 below) (Athanasopoulos 2001; Japanese has different verbs for putting on garments, hat, and other pieces of attire and two lexemes denoting ‘water’ depending on whether the speaker is female or male (although the young generation attempt to shun this gender-exclusive differentiation), Chinese has a separate word for going to the cinema, theatre, or doctor, while Swahili an assortment of greetings depending on the gender, age, and status of the person encountered);
  • display generally greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher-order thinking skills (Hakuta 1986); they have better ‘measures of conceptual development’, ‘creativity’ and ‘analogical reasoning’ (Diaz 1985), divergent thinking and figural creativity (Landry 1973b; cf. also e.g. 1968, 1972, 1973a, 1974). “Bilinguals or multilinguals are more used to switching thought patterns and have more flexible minds” (UNESCO 1995:179). FL learners consistently outperform their peers in core subject areas on standardized tests (Masciantonio 1977; Rafferty 1986; Andrade et al. 1989; Armstrong & Rogers 1997; Saunders 1998). For instance, multilingual children in Brussels secondary schools outperform their monoglot schoolmates in problem-solving and fraction exercises (Van de Craen et al. 2006; cf. also Rafferty (1986) for higher math scores of language students and Armstrong & Rogers (1997) (see footnote #2 below) for similar results in math and language arts; Campbell’s (1962) longitudinal study contrasting performance in all school subjects of FLES (FL in elementary school, 20 minutes per day) and non-FLES students, all selected to have IQ of 120 or above, suggesting that FLES has a positive effect; consistent improved performance on both verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests in Peal & Lambert (1962), Bruck et al. (1974), Hakuta (1986) and Weatherford (1986), on Performance IQ, Picture Arrangement Object Assembly in Samuels & Griffore (1979), and on Iowa Test of Basic Skills in Lipton et al. (1985)).

    “A monolingual has in a sense a single other to model: all the people whom he or she encounters use the same world-view and the same language. A person who speaks multiple languages has at least dual others – a stereoscopic vision of the world from two or more perspectives. As we know from many studies of young children, this indeed has an effect on their cognitive development, enabling them to be more flexible in their thinking, learn reading more easily. The point is not so much that 2+2=4 as 2+2=5; it is not just the addition of a different world perspective to the person’s scope as the realisation that many perspectives are possible. Monolinguals therefore are not only restricted to a single world-view, but they also have more idea that other world-views are possible. Indeed this has always been seen as one of the main educational advantages of language teaching. (Cook 2001a)”

  • early FL study results in substantial and long-lived benefits to the developing brain: “[t]he learning experiences of a child determine which [neural] connections are developed and which no longer function” (Dr. Michael Phelps, Chairman of the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, UCLA School of Medicine, quoted in NNELL 1996);
  • expand their personal horizons and—being simultaneously insiders and outsiders—see their own culture from a new perspective not available to monoglots, enabling the comparison, contrast, and understanding of cultural concepts;
  • be better problem-solvers gaining multiple perspectives on the issue (Kennedy 1994);
  • have improved critical thinking abilities;
  • possess extra skills in language use, e.g. engage in transfer, borrowing, insertional, alternational, inter- and intra-sentential code switching (see footnote #3 below) (Grosjean 1989), mixing, and translation—patterns that are usual and natural rather than exceptional (as is in the case of monoglots), and analyzed as psycholinguistically motivated hybrid utterances serving different interactional, linguistic, pragmatic, cognitive and strategic functions (Majer 2006);
  • which may prove invaluable as, in some cases, the insertion of a foreign term may mean lower risk than e.g. omitting that term altogether for lack of a relevant translational equivalent in the person’s lexicon (Pym 2006);
  • reverse underachievement and close the achievement gap if they had been struggling in other subjects, as such learners make the greatest proportional gains, since “extended foreign language study gives students of average intelligence a kind of enrichment they may not be getting from other studies or experiences” (Garfinkel & Tabor 1991). For instance, a significant correlation was demonstrated between improved reading scores of language learners of average intelligence (the improvement for children of above average intelligence was statistically insignificant); FLL helps alter the trajectory for these students (op. cit.; see also Andrade et al. (1989) for indications that achievement for children participating in the FL magnet program far exceeds national norms in reading and math);
  • thus, when pupils not accustomed to achievement in school excel in this area, it results in their developing a significantly higher self-concept and self-esteem (Masciantonio 1977; Andrade et al. 1989; Saunders 1998);
  • better understand and appreciate people of other countries, thereby lessening racism, xenophobia, and intolerance (Carpenter & Torney 1974), as the learning of a new language usually brings with it a revelation of a new culture. FL study offers unique insight into other cultures and promotes intercultural competence – especially as “[t]he positive impact of cultural information is significantly enhanced when that information is experienced through foreign language” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004), which is becoming increasingly sought after in the age of global interdependence and increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic societies. Harvard Business Review (quoted by Schwarzer 2006) reveals that banks not only tolerate, but also celebrate and capitalize on diversity, which helps them make much more money annually; (see footnote #4 below)
  • learn further languages more quickly and efficiently than their hitherto monolingual peers (Cummins 1981);
  • to say nothing of the social and employment advantages of being bilingual – offering the student the ability to communicate with people s/he would otherwise not have the chance to interact with, and increasing job opportunities in many careers.

Thus, just like Latin once used to be taught as an academic exercise, mental gymnastics with the aim of cognitive training, it has been demonstrated that people who know more than one language usually think more flexibly than monolinguals. Also many celebrated bilingual writers—such as John Milton, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Barclay Beckett, or Iosif Brodsky—attest that knowing a second language enhances the use of the first.

Michał B. Paradowski is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw; he has also taught EFL at an elite high school. His interests include issues relating to second language acquisition research, the effects of formal instruction, and foreign language teaching in general. Dr Paradowski has authored a number of journal articles and book chapters, delivered presentations at several international conferences, and refereed submissions to recognized linguistics quarterlies.


(1) For instance, Latin lacked generic ‘gray’ and ‘brown’; Navajo collapses blue and green; Shona speakers split green between blue and yellow (Pinker 2000:51), French has a word to name a hue that is not brown yet no longer grey (taupe), and Polish and Russian make a distinction between sky blue and navy blue, while the phrase ‘to give someone the green light’ may be meaningless in Japan where the lower traffic lights are blue. This, of course, does not mean that we experience the world differently.

(2) In this study, after one term of 90-minute weekly language study, one experimental group actually received 1.5 fewer hours of math instruction per week and still outperformed the controls.

(3) Using the L1 (in most cases) as a matrix language in which random interjections of L2/L3/Ln words and phrases become embedded. Code-switching lets the speakers achieve a wide range of important and interesting goals: “marking identity, attitudes, and alliances, signaling discourse functions, conveying politeness, creating aesthetic and humorous effects, or pragmatic ambiguity” (House & Kasper 2000:115; Myers-Scotton 1993). Thus, such linguistic bricolage need not be triggered by lack of proficiency. In a study of German secondary-school learners of French, Legenhausen (1991) demonstrated that the frequency of code-switching failed to correlate with their proficiency level, but that it did with turn length and utterance complexity in—interestingly—both languages. They thus, probably, saw it as a means enabling them to partake in both the identity of a ‘good language learner’ and that of a ‘fellow classmate’, metamorphosing from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde and back.

(4) Through an understanding of the cultures of the clients – the same concerns multinational corporations, enterprises wanting to establish good relations with their trading partners and compete effectively in global markets, and NGOs. Cf. also the explicit statement from the National Curriculum for England and Wales that one of the educational purposes of language teaching is the development of pupils’ ‘cultural awareness’, “the promotion of understanding of and respect for other cultures … one of the most important aims of modern language studies. … to encourage positive attitudes to foreign language learning and to speakers of foreign languages and a sympathetic approach to other cultures and civilisations” (DES 1990:3).



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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Study ESL in Cebu October 27, 2010 at 3:01 am

Whether we like it or not, the world of tomorrow will remain multilingual. Educating people to be multilingual is not only offering a reflection of the various socio-linguistic and socio-cultural realities, it is also a means of defending this diversity.


2 nazri January 17, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Do you know any established international conference in 2011 which is related to multilingualism ?


3 Nenchi stephen March 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

This is a must read article for students and researchers, as they could find the benefits of bilingualism


4 Dr. Navin Kumar Singh June 15, 2017 at 3:13 pm

Yes, well grounded and informative article! Some of you might be interested in my book on the same topic, Multilingualism.

Navin Kumar Singh (2013). Multilingual Trends in a Globalized World: Prospects and Challenges. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK.


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