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The proven benefits of early bi/multilingualism

What are the benefits of bilingualism to my children?

Some parents may find this question not worth asking since the benefits of bi/multilingualism have been discussed so extensively that they are now taken for granted. The proficiency of two or more languages enhances children’s career prospects and removes language barriers in daily communication and at work. To migrant communities speaking a minority language, bi/multilingualism and heritage language maintenance strengthens family cohesion, ensures children bonding with their homeland, culture and sense of self. Apart from these obvious advantages, how else can early bi/multilingualism be beneficial to children? The following aims to provide parents with what research and science have to say about early bi/multilingualism.

Can we call a cow a dog?

This is one of the questions that a group of researchers asked bilingual and monolingual children in their study (1) back in 1972. Can you guess how the children responded? While monolingual kids all thought this was ridiculous and impossible, their bilingual peers believed that this was possible since in the two languages they spoke there were two different words for a cow. What does this tell us? Firstly, bilingual children tend to recognize the arbitrariness (*) of words earlier than their monolingual peers. Secondly, bilingual children are better than monolinguals at telling the difference between form and meaning. Thirdly, bilingual children develop an understanding of how language works, or metalanguage awareness, earlier than monolingual ones. With these linguistic advantages, balanced bilingual children with proficiency in both languages are more likely to have better creative thinking than their monolingual peers, meaning that when they cannot solve a problem in one way, they will try another. This superior creative thinking may stem from the fact that to get themselves across effectively and clearly in a specific context, bilinguals have to make language choice, switch between two languages, activate one and inhibit the other (2). Thanks to their hands-on experiences with two language systems, bilingual children develop sharper skills in understanding others’ viewpoints, thoughts, intentions and desires and are more sensitive to changes in their interlocutors’ tone and intonation (3).

Other studies on the effects of bilingualism on cognitive development show that bilingual children are superior to their monolingual peers in doing memory-based tasks, generalizing information from one activity to another (4), forming hypotheses and recognizing different and contrasting information (5). A famous neurolinguistic project conducted by a group of researchers from the UK in 2004 reveals that acquisition of a second language at an early age can alter the structure of the human brain (6). In this study, participants who had acquired a second language before the age of 5 had higher density of grey matter on their left hemisphere of the brain than monolinguals or those who had acquired a second language after the age of 10.

So does that mean only bi/multilingualism can make my children smart?

While the aforementioned studies prove the positive effects of early bi/multilingualism on children’s cognitive development, it should be well acknowledged that bi/multilingualism is not the only way to develop cognitive advantages. It has been demonstrated that early musical training can also lead to similar cognitive benefits. This means that children’s cognitive development can be enhanced by a range of rich activities and experiences. Besides learning languages, children should be given ample opportunities for quality experiences that support their cognitive, physical, mental and emotional development. When it comes to parenting in general and raising bi/multilingual children in particular, parents are more likely to come across myths and misunderstandings than evidence-based information. We hope that you have found some valuable takeaways from this piece of writing to become more confident to make informed decisions on raising your children bi/multilingually. 

If you are more of a visual type, please have a look at this informative TED-Ed video on the advantages of a bilingual brain.

TED-Ed: The benefits of a bilingual brain

Đỗ Thị Xuân Hoa - Stories of Vietnam Team

* In linguistics, arbitrariness is the absence of any natural or necessary connection between a word's meaning and its sound or form.


1 Ianco-Worrall, A. (1972). Bilingualism and Cognitive Development. Child Development, 43(4), 1390.

2 Bialystok, E., & Martin, M. (2004). Attention and inhibition in bilingual children: Evidence from the dimensional change card sort task. Developmental Science, 7(3), 325-339.

3 Byers-Heinlein, K., & Lew-Williams, C. (2013). Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says. LEARNing landscapes, 7(1), 95–112.

4 Brito, N., & Barr, R. (2012). Influence of bilingualism on memory generalization during infancy. Developmental Science, 15(6), 812-816.

5 Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development language, literacy, and cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge        University Press.

6 Crinion, J., Noppeney, U., O'Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Mechelli, A., Price, C., & Frackowiak, R. (2004). Neurolinguistics Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431(7010), 757.