Cognitive Consequences of Bi-/Multilingualism. Cognitive Benefits of Growing up within a Multilingual Environment

Seminar Paper, 2020

18 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Cognitive Consequences of Bi-/Multilingualism
2.1 Executive functions
2.1.1 Flanker task
2.1.2 Simon task
2.2 Second and third language acquisition and parallel activation
2.3 Benefits in older age
2.4 Effects on memory

3. Development of multilingual individuals
3.1 Personal development
3.2 Academic potential
3.3 Analytical thinking

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In current times, more than half of the world's population is bilingual or multilingual. A survey which was conducted by the European Commission in 2006, shows that 56 percent of the participants are able to speak in one or more language(s) other than their mother tongue (European Commission, 2006, p. 8). This percentage is even higher in some of the world's areas: for instance, 99 percent of Luxembourgers and 97 percent of Slovaks master more than one language (p. 8).

This upbringing in a multilingual environment does not only facilitate cross- cultural communication, but has also positive effects on the cognitive abilities. Research has shown that bi-/multilinguals have outperformed monolinguals in several tasks, such as the Flanker task, the Stroop task, or the Trail Making task, showing that bi-/multilinguals can have better attention and task­switching capacities than monolinguals (Boumeester, Michel & Fyndanis, 2020, p. 100). However, the most interesting and consistent results have shown that bi-/multilingualism has positive effects at both ends of the age spectrum: Children who grew up in a bi-/multilingual environment can better adjust to environmental changes than others and elderly people suffer from less cognitive decline (p.100-101). This paper should therefore examine the cognitive benefits deriving from growing up in a multilingual environment. It deals with the questions if bi-/multilinguals can learn a new language faster than others and with the question if they have better task-switching capacities than monolinguals. Eventually, the benefits of bi-/multilingualism for elderly people should be described. In order to give an answer to these questions, first, our paper has a look on the cognitive consequences of bi-/ multilingualism, including the executive function, the second and third language acquisition connected with the parallel activation of both languages, the benefits in older age and the effects on memory. Following, the development of multilingual individuals should be described. The paper will take a look on the personal development, the academic potential and the analytical thinking of multilingual individuals. Lastly, the findings will be summarized in the conclusion.

2. Cognitive Consequences of Bi-/Multilingualism

Studies that have been done in the past few decades have closely examined how bilingualism and multilingualism can have effects on various mechanisms in the human body and the physiological and anatomical changes that come along with that. Concerning cognitive performance, Baumgart and Billick (2017) stated that this includes higher levels of controlled attention and inhibition linked to executive function meaning, being able to tune out irrelevant stimuli (p. 273­274). The advantage of being able to do so can be seen in multilingual participants of the study and furthermore, they have shown a clear executive control over conflict resolution and switching skills. Concerning the aging process, it can also be stated that multilingual children show a respective protection against the decline of their executive control in aging, especially when it comes to cognitive reserve and memory generalization. These increasing functions in multilinguals, including executive functioning and executive control, have been mostly demonstrated in tasks unrelated to language acquisition. In a variety of tasks concerning cognitive functions such as inhibition, shifting and updating information in working memory, participants who were bilingual or multilingual performed significantly better than their monolingual opponents. These advantages were demonstrated in a variety of ways, such as the achievement of metalinguistic tasks and controlled attention and inhibition, but not in tasks requiring grammatical knowledge about a language. Monolingual and bilingual participants achieved approximately the same results concerning grammatical knowledge, but monolinguals were outperformed by bilingual participants requiring enhanced inhibition and selective attention (Baumgart & Billick, 2017, p. 273-274). The following part of the paper will have a closer look on the cognitive benefits of bi-/multilingualism on the executive functions, the second and third language acquisition plus the parallel activation of languages, the benefits of it in older age and lastly, on the working memory.

2.1 Executive functions

The executive functions are mental skills or processes that enable us to master everyday life tasks. They help us plan a trip, organize a research project, enable us to write a paper and much more (Cooper-Kahn & Dietzel, 2012). In general, they involve processes that help organize goal-oriented actions. They are vital for, for instance, tasks that require us to switch attention between them (for example switching languages in a bi-/multilingual community). Research suggests that the early exposure to a bilingual language experience improves the general executive processes (Limberger & Buchweitz, 2014, p. 263). It is stated that a lifelong experience in managing and controlling two or more languages may reorganize the executive functions, “creating a more effective basis and sustaining better cognitive performance throughout the lifespan” (p. 262). This bi-/multilingual advantage can derive from the phenomenon that bi- /multilinguals experience several situations where conflict resolution and selection are required, meaning that they have to select one language while inhibiting the other(s).

The positive effect of bi-/multilingualism on the executive functions has particularly affected young children and elderly adults, whose performance notably differed from matched monolinguals in tasks like the Simon task or the antisaccade task.1 To emphasize the benefits of bi-/multilingualism on the executive functions, the Flanker tasks and the Simon task will be described in the following.

2.1.1 Flanker task

Emmorey and colleagues (2008) had bilingual as well as monolingual adults perform several Flanker tasks in order to examine the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. In their studies, both unimodal and bimodal bilinguals were included. The researchers found no group differences concerning the accuracy; however, the unimodal bilinguals were faster than the bimodal bilinguals and monolinguals. Engel de Abreu et al. (2012), as well as Poarch and Bialystok (2015), found out that bilingual young children performed better on the Flanker task than their monolingual colleagues, also showing that the degree of proficiency does not have an impact on the results of the studies.

However, it has to be added that several researchers have not found any differences between the results of bi-/multilinguals and monolinguals. Nevertheless, the electrophysiological discrepancy between the two test groups (monolingual and bi-/multilingual) were always visible in the conducted data (Van der Noort et al., 2020, p. 25).

2.1.2 Simon task

The Simon task is an behavioral instrument for measuring cognitive interferences and conflict resolution. Participants are asked to respond and react to visual stimuli by making a rightward response to one of these stimuli (e.g. a circle) and a leftward (e.g. a square). These stimuli can either be on the right or on the left side of an display (SOBC, n.d.).

Research shows that bilingual participants responded more rapidly to tasks that placed greater demands on the working memory than monolinguals. In the same study, Bialystok (2006) stated that video-game players showed faster responses than any other test group. However, once again, this test group was outperformed by the bilinguals, showing their enhanced conflict solving processes. Generally said, scientists have found an crucial evidence in favor for the bilingual advantage, including faster working memory, an enhanced conflict solving skill, as well as inhibitory control and monitoring. Furthermore, Bialystok and colleagues (2005) found out that the management of two or more language systems may lead to changes concerning the frontal executive functions.

This illustration above shows that the Simon effect is smaller when it comes to bilinguals when tested with monolinguals, meaning that bilinguals have a higher level of cognitive control. As it can be seen, the Simon effect rapidly increases in the years 50-79; however, the effects on bilinguals remained under 300ms.

Nevertheless, it has to be added that not all studies, which used the Simon task, have found a bilingual advantage. Interpreters and L2 teachers, for instance, did not outperform monolinguals in either of the skills mentioned above. (Van de Noort et al, 2020, p. 24).

2.2 Second and third language acquisition and parallel activation

According to Cenoz (2003), “third language acquisition refers to the acquisition of a non-native language by learners who have previously acquired or are acquiring two other languages. The acquisition of the first two languages can be simultaneous (as in early bilingualism) or consecutive” (p. 73). Various studies have proven that learning a second language is different from learning a third language. Jessner (2006) states that second language is a term for “any language other than the first language learned by a given learner or group of learners a) irrespective of the type of learning environment and b) irrespective of the number of other non-native languages possessed by the learner” (p. 13­14). Compared to second language acquisition, the process of third language acquisition is more complex and demands a different range of skills of the learner. Cenoz (2003) categorizes the main differences between second, third and multilingual language acquisition as follows: 1) The order in which languages are learned, 2) sociolinguistic factors and 3) the psycholinguistic processes which are involved (p. 81). In terms of second language acquisition, there are only few possible variations which concern the order of the language acquisition: Either the second language is learned after the first language or both languages are learned simultaneously. If more than two languages are involved, there are far more other variations, for instance, one language­learning process interrupting another one.

Another distinction between second and third language acquisition is the context where the languages are learned and used and the typology as well as the sociocultural status of the languages concerned. The language acquisition might either happen in a natural or an instructional setting (community vs. school) or in both, hence the amount of input available differs. This has an impact on the acquisition and development of the learner's language skills and therefore affects the third language acquisition (Cenoz & Jesssner 2000 as quoted in Safont Jorda 2005, 12: 18-19). Furthermore, Hammarberg (2009) points out that the typological structure of the target language is worthy of being observed, since it affects third language acquisition as well. If the target language is typologically closer to the source language, the language acquisition might be facilitated (p. 76).


1 Compare the descriptions and findings of several executive tasks described in Bialystok, Craik & Ryan, 2006; Bialystok & Shapero, 2005; Martin-Rhee & Bialystok, 2008.

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Cognitive Consequences of Bi-/Multilingualism. Cognitive Benefits of Growing up within a Multilingual Environment
University of Innsbruck
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cognitive, consequences, bi-/multilingualism, benefits, growing, multilingual, environment
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Romana Pfurtscheller (Author), 2020, Cognitive Consequences of Bi-/Multilingualism. Cognitive Benefits of Growing up within a Multilingual Environment, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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