Ask François Grosjean: What Does Research Say About the Benefits of Multilingualism?

by Corey · 2 comments

While Prof. Emeritus François Grosjean was working on his wonderful book Bilingual: Life and Reality, he asked me to send him a list of questions that I felt weighed the heaviest on the minds of parents raising multilingual children. It is my honor to present both my questions and Prof. Grosjean’s answers here at Multilingual Living over the course of the next few weeks.

This the fourth of the 11 Q & A, which originally appeared in The Bilingual Family Newsletter, one of my favorite publications for families raising children in more than one language (in addition to my own Multilingual Living Magazine, of course)! After each of of Prof. Grosjean’s answers you will find a list of the specific chapters from Bilingual: Life and Reality in which he addresses each question.

What does research say, in layman’s terms, about the benefits of bilingualism/multilingualism over monolingualism?

There are many advantages to being bilingual: to communicate with people of different languages and cultures; to speak to relatives with whom one would not communicate otherwise; to become literate in more than one language; to facilitate the learning of other languages; to foster open-mindedness and have different perspectives on life; to increase job opportunities; to help others whose language and culture you know, etc. These reasons are not based directly on research as such – they are the opinions of individuals, many of them bilingual – but they make a lot of sense and they are heard repeatedly.

As for benefits that are proposed by research, it is important that one be very careful with older studies since they did not always control for important factors. More recent studies indicate that bilingual children do better than monolingual children in some domains (e.g. tasks that require control of attention, also called selective control); they do as well as monolinguals in other domains (e.g. tasks that require analysis of representation); and they sometimes do less well than monolinguals (e.g. in vocabulary tests where only one language is taken at a time, and the child is dominant in a language).

The latter result can be explained by means of the Complementarity Principle which states that bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different aspects of life often require different languages. Unfortunately, research rarely takes into account this principle and hence bilingual children are penalized when compared to their monolingual counterparts.

Relevant chapters in Bilingual: Life and Reality which addresses this question: chapters 3, 9 & 18.

Past Ask François Grosjean Q&A in the series:

  1. The first in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Are My Bilingual Children Getting Enough Exposure?
  2. The second in the series is Ask François Grosjean: What is the best method for helping children become bilingual?
  3. The third in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Can I Change From One Language Or Method To Another?

François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, received his degrees up to the Doctorat d'Etat from the University of Paris, France. He started his academic career at the University of Paris 8 and then left for the United-States in 1974 where he taught and did research in psycholinguistics at Northeastern University, Boston. While at Northeastern he was also a Research Affiliate at the Speech Communication Laboratory at MIT. In 1987, he was appointed professor at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, where he founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. He has lectured occasionally at the Universities of Basel, Zurich and Oxford. In 1998, he cofounded Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (Cambridge University Press). Visit his website at: and his Psychology Today blog, Life as a bilingual, at:

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Krzysztof Pawliszak March 15, 2011 at 9:26 am

I wrote my BA thesis in bilingualism (Influence of being bi-/multi-lingual on foreign language acquisition).
I carefully read Grosjean’s publications. I do admire his knowledge and read all publications with pleasure.
I concluded my thesis that there is clear benefits of being bilingual. That was really interesting to dwell into.
No I’m working on my MA Thesis, and surprise, surprise: bilingualism and its influence on translation/interpreting. May be interesting as well.


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