- Bilingual children are better than their monolingual peers at selectively attending to important information and ignoring misleading cues (this is known as cognitive control). As bilingual children are constantly sorting & filtering out extra perceptual information, since, for every object or action, bilingual children assign two words, or labels, one in each language that they speak, then they have to develop the ability to choose the appropriate label. Thus, bilingual children nurture their capacity to focus on relevant and appropriate information and inhibit their attention on the information unrelated to the context.
- The skill inhibitory control has shown to be a key factor in the ability to perform a number of different cognitive tasks and, as a result, they would have a superior ability to use selective attention (or cognitive control).
- Bilingual children were found to be more advanced in performing a series of number tasks, especially on those that required high levels of selective attention. This was because of the meta-linguistic skills that enable them to perform better; mainly their ability to self-correct and, perhaps become more confident, enhanced their problem-solving approaches.
- Creative thinking appears to be less restricted in bilingual children.
- The ability to use knowledge about a language has shown to be better in bilingual children.
- Conceptual transfer is where a bilingual child uses the understanding they have of a concept to help them understand a similar concept in another language. Conceptual transfer has been described as a ‘dual iceberg’. One can see the separate use of the two languages ‘above’ sea level, where children will switch from one language to another easily. However, below the surface, there is a deeper transfer of the languages at a conceptual level, which can ultimately help bilingual children to learn. Conceptual transfer explains why bilingual children find it easier to learn further languages when compared to monolinguals.
Whilst most of the scientific literature has focused on the advantages of bilinguals, there is some evidence that it can lead to the following disadvantages:
- 5% of children stammer when they are learning to talk. However, research has shown that bilingual children can be more prone to stammering because of the impact of learning two languages.
- Bilingual children can have a reduced vocabulary in one or both of their languages when compared to the normal size of vocabulary for a child of their age. This may be expected given that the bilingual child is learning two labels for every object or action that they observe and so there is the possibility that such a complex task may affect the development of their vocabulary compared to the situation of them learning only one language.
- It has been argued that bilingualism can be risk factor in in the onset of selective mutism.
The advantages of bilingualism may be confounded by other factors beyond one’s control; e.g. low socio-economic status, reduced social circumstances, etc. However, bilingualism does not exacerbate the negativity of these experiences.
Educational Psychologists undertaking standardised assessments should remain very cautious when using standardised cognitive ability tests to assess bilingual children and if they do, they should interpret the results very carefully as children can be disadvantaged by the sub-tests that are timed; especially on those tests assessing language skills.
Deciding to move from bilingualism to monolingualism has the effect of changing the child’s environment significantly and may mean that they can become marginalised within their own community, so advice must be carefully considered.
There are no strict rules about how to deal with every single set of circumstances presented which is why each case must be considered individually; e.g. should a dyslexic child concentrate on developing the literacy skills of the language being taught in school? Will an autistic child cope and be comfortable with the learning of two languages?
It would be interesting to see what experiences other people have had with regard to this challenge.
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