Special Report
English-Language Learners

Bilingualism: A Cognitive Advantage or Disadvantage for Children?

By James Crawford — April 01, 1987 3 min read
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Language preservation was the overriding goal of 19th-century bilingual-education programs. The maintenance of Spanish was an objective in Miami’s Coral Way experiment of the early 1960’s. And parents’ desire to see their children become fluent in two languages was a major impetus for the development of Canadian immersion programs.

But in the United States today, few bilingual programs strive to develop lasting bilingualism. Federal policy prescribes transitional bilingual education--a remedial, rather than an enrichment, model. Continuing native-language instruction beyond the point at which children become proficient in English is controversial--even in California, where state law allows for maintenance programs.

Some opposition to language-maintenance programs is based on the fear that bilingual societies are divided societies. But another kind of concern may underlie much of the negative attitude toward bilingualism in this country--a lingering suspicion that fluency in more than one language is confusing to the brain. Until recent years, in fact, a majority of educational psychologists viewed bilingualism as a cognitive disability for young children.

Kenji Hakuta, an associate professor of psychology at Yale University, has traced the “language handicap’’ theory back to the early part of the 1900’s. Backed by rising public sentiment against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, he says, some psychologists warned then that the “new immigrants’’ could spoil “the gene pool’’ of the United States.

In addition, Mr. Hakuta points to:

  • H.H. Goddard’s 1917 conclusions, drawn from results of the Binet intelligence test administered at Ellis Island, that three-fourths of adult Jewish immigrants were “feeble-minded.”
  • Florence Goodenough’s 1926 work that “showed a negative relationship between the amount of foreign language used in the home and the median I.Q. of the groups’’ studied.
  • George Thompson’s widely used American textbook on child psychology, published in 1952, which asserted: “There can be no doubt that the child reared in a bilingual environment is handicapped in his language growth. One can debate the issue as to whether speech facility in two languages is worth the consequent retardation in the common language of the realm.”

The conclusions are suspect, Mr. Hakuta says, because experiments that found bilingualism was a handicap generally disregarded socioeconomic status and other factors that could influence test performance, typically comparing poor bilinguals to more affluent monolinguals.

At the same time, he expresses some skepticism about research that has reached the opposite conclusion: that bilingualism is a decided cognitive advantage. Beginning with a 1962 study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace E. Lambert of McGill University, several psychologists have argued that proficient bilingualism enhances cognitive flexibility.

Jim Cummins, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has advanced a “threshold hypothesis,’' arguing that a certain level of competence in both languages is necessary to yield positive cognitive effects. Conversely, he argues, limited or “subtractive bilingualism,’' in which the goal is to replace a child’s native language, can have negative cognitive effects.

Though Mr. Hakuta cautions that design problems in such research make it difficult to draw firm conclusions, he says his own work has suggested a mental edge for children who are “balanced bilinguals’'--especially in a nonverbal measure of intelligence--as compared with children who speak two languages, but are dominant in one or the other.

Certainly, he adds, there are social and economic advantages to bilingualism, echoing a common complaint among bilingual educators, who say that the lack of maintenance programs results in “a waste of linguistic resources.’'

Spanish-speaking children, for example, are rarely given an opportunity to continue native-language study beyond the 3rd or 4th grade, and their abilities in the language usually erode or, at best, stabilize at that level. Then, in high school, they may be required to enroll in Spanish I or another foreign-language course.

Whether or not the lack of Spanish-maintenance programs also represents a wasted opportunity for cognitive development is a question for further research, most bilingual-education advocates agree. But Mr. Cummins sums up the view of many researchers when he says: “Bilingualism is not bad for the brain, and it’s probably good.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as Bilingualism: Advantage or Disadvantage for Children?

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