Bilingualism - A Short Overview of Research on Intellectual Effects and the Conditions Which Influence Intellectual Development

Term Paper, 1991

7 Pages, Grade: very good

Free online reading

1. Introduction

although the average European or US American believes that monolingualism is natural and normal, most people of the world are bilingual or even multilingual. in many Asian and African countries, people speak their home language and an official administrative language in order to communicate with members of other ethnical groups within their country.

As bilingualism is a reality in our world, psychologists, linguists, sociologists, teachers and, of course, parents began to ask: 'What consequences does bilingualism bring about for the individual?' , 'Will children suffer if they become bilingual?', 'Which role do attitude and motivation play in becoming bilingual?' In may essay, I want to give a short overview of research findings and theories which offer probable answers to these questions.

2. Definitions and Problems

Bilingualism is not an all-or-none property, therefore it may exist in various degrees (Hornby 1977). As language consists of the four basic skills, such as listening, reading, speaking and writing which in their turn are subdivided into further skills like vocabulary, grammar, style, pronunciation and meanings (Baker 1988), a large number of varieties is possible in which bilinguals may differ from each other in their language competence. Taking into account also social background, different roles of the languages involved etc., it seems to be impossible to define a bilingual. Scientists have tried to evade this problem by studying mostly balanced bilinguals, that is individuals with nearly equal competence in both languages. This group, however, may not be considered representative as the majority of bilinguals tends to have one dominant language (Grosjean 1982).

A second problem arises when groups are to be compared and therefore matched in their degree of intelligence. Theories of intelligence measurement vary from 150 factors to be considered (Guildford, Baler 1988) up to the possibility of reducing

intelligence to one ground factor (the 'g' factor of Spaerman and Jones). None of these categorisations has remained without critics.

3. Findings on Intellectual Effects

Up to the 1960s, nearly all studies found that bilinguals are inferior in intelligence to monolinguals. Those results, however, may be neglected as 'little care was taken to check out the essentials before comparing monolingual and bilingual subjects“ (W. E. Lambert, 1977)1.

The start to the belief in positive effects of bilingualism was given when in 1962 Elizabeth Pearl and Wallace E. Lambert found that Canadian French-English bilinguals were superior to their monolingual peers in verbal and non-verbal measures of intelligence. Several follow-up studies seemed to confirm that result. Superiority has been found in divergent thinking (special type of cognitive flexibility), analytical approach towards language, communicative sensitivity and field independence (Grosjean 1982; Baker 1988).

J. Cummins (1976) introduced three hypotheses to explain and integrate these findings. He attributes the higher scores of bilinguals in intelligence tests to:

1 a wider and more varied range of experiences bilinguals have,

2 the switching mechanism - bilinguals have to switch between their languages

and are therefore more flexible in thought.; moreover, two languages offer two different perspectives which might again lead to more flexibility and originality, and

3 the process of objectivation - bilinguals have to compare and contrast

meanings, grammatical forms etc.; this leads to constant vigilance and inspection of their languages (Baker 1988).

Nevertheless, we have to be cautious in evaluating these results. Why somebody becomes bilingual whereas another remains monolingual whilst measurable essentials seem to be the same is not explained. Perhaps the positive findings are the cause rather than the result of bilingualism (Baker 1988).

4. Individual Psychological Explanation

Another point is that there is no unanimity concerning the degree of superiority bilinguals have, and even inferiority has been found with non-balanced bilinguals. Cummins therefore argues that the important issue is not what effects bilingualism has on cognitive processes but which conditions facilitate or retard cognitive growth (Baker 1988).

One attempt to answer this question is Cummins' Threshold Theory. He sets two thresholds of language competence which are necessary to avoid negative consequences on the one hand, and enable the bilingual to benefit from positive effects on the other. Although it is not possible to define the threshold levels in absolute terms, one can roughly state that when a child has age-appropriate language proficiency in one language, the first threshold is reached. Being equally competent in both languages, positive effects on intellectual capability may result (Grosjean 1982).

In connection with this, Cummins argues that conversational skills are not closely related to academic performance as they are context-embedded and require rather cognitively undemanding language use. In the classroom, however, a higher level of language competence is needed as language used is context-reduced and cognitively demanding. Thus Cummins distinguishes between basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) (Romaine 1989).

This may help to understand why children of minority groups often have a rather limited school success and score lower in intelligence tests. They have gained basic communicative skills in their first language at home and some knowledge in a second language playing with peers of the majority group. But when attending school, they cannot properly understand the teacher and fail. They miss out important information and experiences and show detrimental effects in comparison to monolingual children.

Studies have shown that teaching children of minority groups in their first

language at primary school - and thereby enabling them to have age-appropriate language skills - results in positive effects in the second language too (studies of

Long & Padilla 1970, Peal & Lambert 1962, Tucker & Lambert 1972; in Hornby 1977).

Although Cummins' theories explain a variety of findings, empirical confirmation is still required. Furthermore, he does not take into account other influences, such as the relationship between social-environmental factors, tratis of personality, attitude and motivation which a number of other researchers have recognised as essential.

5. Attitude / Motivation Models

W. E. Lambert (1977), for instance, argues that the social setting may provoke positive or negative consequences for bilinguals. In his terms he speaks of additive bilingualism (enrichment of language competence) and subtractive bilingualism (impoverishment of language competence). He considers a social setting where no pressure to replace and reduce the first language is likely to bring about additive bilingualism, whereas circumstances requiring assimilation and replacement of the first language, enhancing the rear of identity loss, may lead to subtractive bilingualism. This might explain why school immersion programmes have only been successful with children of the majority group.

Together with R. C. Garnder, W. E. Lambert suggests another aspect which influences the success of becoming bilingual. In their studies both scientists found that there are two main motivations which lead to bilingualism. The instrumental motivation implies utilitarian motives: Lambert defines it as „the desire to gain social recognition or economic advantages through knowledge of a foreign language.“1 The integrative motivation means personalised or interpersonal motives: „the desire to be like representative members of the 'other language community'.“2 Depending on the context, these motivations may be fostered or inhibited. Both scientists realised, however, that according to their results the integrative motivation is the more influential (Baker, 1988).

One of the most inclusive models, however, seems to be R. C. Gardner's socio- educational model. He presents 4 influential stages which interact with each other and thus build a cyclical and dynamic model.

The first stage describes the social and cultural background. The child grows up in a certain community which transmits beliefs about culture and language. These factors may determine intelligence, language aptitude, motivation and situational anxiety which form stage 2. The third stage comprises the context in which language is acquired, whether it is rather formal or informal. Obviously, situational anxieties may prevent informal language learning, or the social background may only allow formal language acquisition. The fourth stage is the so-called output, e. g. bilingual proficiency on the one hand and attitudes, self-concept, cultural values and beliefs on the other. Stage four, in its turn, may have consequences for preliminary stages as bilingual proficiency probably decreases situational anxieties, or a positive attitude may change the motivation.

R. C. Garnder's social-educational model has been the most universally and empirically tested theory so far. It implies the integrative motivation as an important variable, it shows how personality traits influence attitude and motivation, how attitude causes motivation and how motivation through self-confidence is an indirect cause of achievement (Baker 1988).

6. Conclusion

The study of bilinguals is far from giving clear answers. The questions I quoted at the beginning of my essay can only be responded to by theories and hypotheses which still fail to give clear evidence and which have several weaknesses.

Nonetheless, I think that it can be stated that bilingualism does not necessarily bring about negative effects on the individual. Whether it leads to positive consequences, one cannot definitely say.

Therefore, several psychologists, linguists and sociologists focus their research on the problem which circumstances foster and which inhibit the intellectual development of a bilingual. I have given a brief overview of some important models and theories because I believe that the complexity of this subject can only be understood when having a variety of different approaches to it. Language

competence, social setting, motivation and attitude are only a few of the many aspects which influence bilingualism and which interact with each other.

The value of bilingualism research, however, consists in the great social impact it may have. The result and findings may help a numerous population to cope with their bilingual existence, to improve their status and self-image, to diminish societal anxieties and, altogether, to increase positive attitudes towards other national or ethnical groups.


Baker, Colin. Key Issues in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Clevedon and Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd 1988.

Grosjean; François. Life with Two Languages - An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge (Mass.) and London: Harvard University Press 1982.

Hornby, Peter, A et al. Bilingualism - Psychological, Social and Educational

Implications. New York, San Francisco, London: Academic Press Inc. 1977.

Romaine, Suzanne. Bilingualism. New York: Basil Blackwell Inc. 1989.


1 Page 15 in Hornby ed al.

1 Page 153 in Baker 1988

2 dto.

7 of 7 pages


Bilingualism - A Short Overview of Research on Intellectual Effects and the Conditions Which Influence Intellectual Development
University of Strathclyde
Presessional English Course
very good
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
394 KB
Bilingualism, Short, Overview, Research, Intellectual, Effects, Conditions, Which, Influence, Intellectual, Development, Presessional, English, Course
Quote paper
Sixta Quaßdorf (Author), 1991, Bilingualism - A Short Overview of Research on Intellectual Effects and the Conditions Which Influence Intellectual Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Bilingualism - A Short Overview of Research on Intellectual Effects and the Conditions Which Influence Intellectual Development

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free