Am I privileged to be multi-lingual?

On a nondescript day, maybe I was 7 that time, I walked the few steps home from my new school, and found my Dad bouncing around in the middle of our living room and hugging my Ma. The reason for the excitement was yet another UN Job. My tiny brain in a rapid-fire fashion learned we were moving again.

Multilingual Children. http://www.shutterstock.com

Being a daughter of a diplomat, I’ve changed at least a dozen schools. Often these relocations accompanied months of struggle to pick up a new language. So, it became an innate ‘character makeup’ to be multi-lingual for my sibling and me. As time passed, the fear of confronting yet another new language subsidised for us and was replaced by a ‘biased pride’ of multilingualism. However, what often haunts me though:

  • Does it really give us an upper hand over the monolingual children, when it comes to the brain’s executive functions?
  • Can we really deal with real-life and ever-changing academic setups any better than many?

Some studies indeed showed a slight advantage for bilinguals relative to monolinguals on tasks of attentional control (Bialystok, 2006; Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004).

However, a recent study at the University of Tennessee, led by Nils and Julia Jaekel argued that bilingual children do not have more advantages than monolingual children when it comes to executive functions like remembering instructions, controlling responses, and switching swiftly in between tasks.

In their study design, the scientists used a computer test (Wright and Diamond, 2014) to compare the executive function of two groups of children between the ages of 5-15 living in the German Ruhr region. The first cohort consisted of 242 children who spoke both Turkish and German, and the other group consisted of 95 children who spoke only German. They monitored the time bilingual and monolingual children required to correctly respond to computer-based problems and stimuli. The results showed no difference in the executive functions of the two groups. The researchers carefully, also considered children’s German and Turkish vocabulary size and their exposure to both languages, factors for which previous studies lacked.

So, does this mean there is no value addition in speaking more than one language? Not really!! It can very well be that the bilingual children are not necessarily more focused, speaking another language indeed opens the door to other socio-economic opportunities.

Nevertheless, it is important to extend the research further on this topic, to assist parents, teachers, recruiters and lawmakers not to overstress on the benefits of speaking a second language.


Cover image: Multilingual children. http://www.shutterstock.com


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