Busting Bilingualism

Anyone who knows me should know that I start salivating whenever I even hear the word “language.” Those who know me even better know that I speak 4 languages, some more fluently than others. Whenever I see articles that attest to the fact that those individuals who are talented enough to master more than one language, I can’t help but get a little excited because it makes me feel special. I mean, who wouldn’t? However, is there really a correlation between multilingualism and cognitive performance?

My interest in multilingualism was sparked when I watched this video by a not-too-famous YouTuber. Spoiler alert: she’s not actually speaking those languages, that’s what we in the industry call “gibberish.” So I got to thinking about how she must be cognitively advantaged if she can even feign knowledge of all of those languages. However, a later video of hers disproves this. So I did some research.

An experiment conducted by Simon and Wolf in 1963 put bilinguals and monolinguals to the test in cognitive performance. In their task, participants were presented with a color and a shape on one side of a screen. If the figure was red, they had to push a button on the right side of the keyboard. If it was blue, a button on the left was pressed. The experiment varied in congruent and non-congruent trials where sometimes the color and the side of the screen it was presented on were similar, and sometimes that was not the case. The experiment showed that both types of participants performed equally, disproving that cognitive function was superior in bilingual people. This task was performed with people of varying levels of multilingual proficiency. For example, one trial consisted of native English speakers, native English speakers who also spoke Spanish, and English-Spanish interpreters whose jobs require them to be fluent in multiple languages. All participants performed the same regardless of level of proficiency in multiple languages.

Furthermore, research has shown that the level of proficiency in basic lexical tasks is decreased across languages in bilingual participants. Time and attention are divided between the two languages, so the learner doesn’t go as in-depth into the language as monolingual speakers of the same language do. In a fluency test, participants were given a letter or category and one minute to name as many words as possible either beginning with the letter or in the category. At the end of the minute, bilingual participants showed a much lower total number of words said than their monolingual counterparts.

So the next time you think that learning a language will help you in the workplace, you need to weigh in on the good, the bad, and the ugly of being multilingual. Yes, you’ll be able to communicate with several different types of people, but does the benefit really outweigh the cognitive cost?

2 thoughts on “Busting Bilingualism

  1. kharner

    I’d be interested in seeing more cons of learning a second language. When I have gone abroad, I feel like most people, especially in Europe, speak at least 2 languages, and such is becoming the norm for most of the world. I am trying to become fluent in Spanish. In my opinion, the benefits of learning a language far outweigh the cost of not going deep enough in one. It is hard for me to believe that learning a second language takes away from your knowledge of the first language. If anything, learning Spanish has better helped me understand English grammar and structure. It requires you to start from scratch and learn the Spanish grammar before being exposed immersed in the language, which is typically the opposite of how humans naturally acquire language. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. mgehlsen Post author

      I definitely think that learning Spanish has helped me understand English grammar and syntax more, but at the same time it’s thrown me off a bit. Sometimes I find myself following the grammar structures of Spanish in an English-speaking environment and vice versa. And I did disagree with what some of the articles said when they mentioned that the level of lexical comprehension was lower in the native language because through cognates, I know what some English words mean without having come across them in casual conversation or in a class before.

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