Do multilingual children have an advantage? Perhaps; but the ability to learn languages may be inborn. Either way, stakes are high and consensus is rare

Today’s world has become “hyper-diverse,” with 244 million migrants worldwide in 2015 qualifying as the fifth largest “country” on earth.

Through globalization and mobility, cultures mix, and not just in the neighborhood. Often it’s right at home as mixed families increasingly communicate in more than one language. In Europe, it’s becoming more the rule than the exception. Modern linguistics speak of “translanguaging,” “metrolingualism,” “heteroglossia” and “code-switching” to describe how multilingual people – particularly children – cope with their often complex cultural environments.

Can young children learn two or more languages simultaneously? And if they try, do they fare better or worse off than their monoglot peers?

Prior to the 1960s, it was believed that being raised bilingually hindered linguistic and cognitive development, that children’s attempts to differentiate between native and target languages would hamper a child’s vocabulary and grammar, resulting in lower scores on verbal, behavioral and IQ tests. Language learning was thought to be a zero-sum game, and a second language would subtract from knowledge of the first.

“Traditionally, we were used to thinking in such dichotomies,” says Dr. Brigitta Busch of the University of Vienna’s Institute of Linguistics. “It was a very monolingual perspective. But the reality is much more complex.”

In these "language portaits" from Dr. Busch’s research projects, each color represents a language in a subject’s repertoire. Where it is drawn – in the heart, on the shoulders or ears, on hands held aloft – can help Dr. Busch interpret one’s complex language identity unhindered by national identity.
In these “language portaits” from Dr. Busch’s research projects, each color represents a language in a subject’s repertoire. Where it is drawn – in the heart, on the shoulders or ears, on hands held aloft – can help Dr. Busch interpret one’s complex language identity unhindered by national identity.


Being a pre-teen polyglot
Much of the published research since 1960 has revealed the reverse. It is now generally accepted that multilingual children – commonly defined as those exposed to two or more languages simultaneously in their early years – have not only mastered the languages, they have demonstrated significant advantages in verbal, and even non-verbal skills over monolingual control groups.

A leading proponent of the benefits of multilingualism is Canadian psychologist Ellen Bialystok. Her research, along with others’, shows multilingual children exhibiting higher aptitude in various cognitive and perceptual areas. These include the ability to focus and weed out the irrelevant, greater empathy and less bias; improved academic performance; multitasking; reading skills; attentiveness … the list goes on. Recent studies even suggest that multilingualism can reduce the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

On the downside, there are also studies showing lower verbal skills for bilinguals. In picture-naming tasks, multilinguals in these studies are slower and less accurate, and the act of retrieving a common word is more challenging.

Research bias
Why the contradictions? Part of the confusion stems from disagreement as to what precisely defines childhood multilingualism. In fact, the inherent subjectivity of language testing itself can make results nearly impossible to duplicate. Findings vary widely according to age, the languages studied, and whether or not a child is learning them under duress, as is often the case with refugees – not to mention the particular bias of a researcher.

There may also simply be a bias toward a favorable view of multilingualism. A review of conference papers from 1999 to 2012 by the Dutch psychologist Angela de Bruin found a nearly even split between reports of a bilingual advantage and those showing a negative impact or none at all. However, those reporting a positive outcome were far more likely to be published (63%).

Evidence through neuroscience
Using various measures (functional magnetic resonance imaging, EEG, PET scans, etc.) in conjunction with behavioral analysis, many psycholinguists are now analyzing what actually happens inside a multilingual’s brain. But early results are less than conclusive.

Using "tractography," a 3-D modeling technique using data from MRI brain scans, neuroscientists are exploring how multilinguals compare to monoglots
Using “tractography,” a 3-D modeling technique using data from MRI brain scans, neuroscientists are exploring how multilinguals compare to monoglots


Some of the studies have now shown that highly proficient bilingual adults, particularly those who learned a second language before age five, have denser gray matter in the brain’s communications areas, suggesting that early multilingualism may actually alter the brain’s neural structure and capacity (“neuroplasticity”). It has also been shown that when multilinguals switch between languages, their neural activity increases even in other parts of the brain.

Dr. Susanne Reiterer of the University of Vienna’s Institute of Linguistics has been studying the neurological basis of language learning, and is skeptical of the benefits.

“Researchers are playing God; they want it to be true,” she told METROPOLE. “But the evidence is just not there. We need bigger studies with large sample sizes and better controls” to rule out other factors.
Dr. Reiterer’s own work has focused on determining whether there is a critical age for effective second-language learning. It’s often said that you can’t really learn a new language after age 10. “People want a ‘Holy Grail’ of truth,” she believes. “But you can’t apply one rule to everyone. You have to look at the individual.”

She estimates that “5% to 15% of all people have a high aptitude for learning languages. Such people, regardless of age, seek out languages themselves and are highly motivated to learn. Once they find out they’re good at it, their motivation increases.” It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  However, basic aptitude comes first.

Today, such innate ability can only be proven through  results. Within 10 years, however, Dr. Reiterer believes, it should be possible to identify specific neural ‘fingerprints’ for language aptitude. Still, people will resist being told what they can or cannot do, “especially in the European school systems,” she predicts. “But I think it’s possible, and beneficial, to detect such abilities as early as possible, then we can more efficiently attack weaknesses and boost strengths.”

Positive Experiences
Dr. Busch is reluctant to make firm predictions. She has “no hard data,” and those studies that do have big enough samples “are rather fuzzy.” She prefers to focus on the emotional components of multilingualism, which in her opinion “have been terribly underestimated.”

The studies are confusing, she says, because they don’t take into consideration the concept of the ‘lift’ experience of language, what she calls “Spracherleben.” If a child is being told she is not a  “legitimate” speaker of her non-native language, she is less likely to obtain any other benefits from being bilingual. However, if she is seen as “an accepted and competent multilingual speaker who has particular idiosyncrasies, this is very positive,” said Dr. Busch. “The environment must clearly welcome all forms of speech that a child produces.”

Multiple language learning
There are also differing opinions on how non-native languages should be taught. The simultaneous immersion model holds that children are better off learning languages in parallel. However, for migrant children, for example, this is not an option, leaving the sequential model as the only way.

Dr. James Cummins, a recognized authority on multilingual education, believes that if a child understands the basic concepts in her native language, she then merely has to attach a label for these terms in a new target language. Cummins estimates that listening and speaking skills can be learned within two years of being immersed in a target culture, while proficiency in writing and reading can take up to seven years.

Dr. Reiterer is one of many who advocate the “OPOL” (one parent, one language) method. “Language codes are established early and are very difficult to change later on. If they are disrupted, very often one code becomes weaker than another,” she believes, adding “Only very proficient children can interpret multiple codes from one interlocutor.”

However, with some children this can become confusing when, say, the language spoken between the parents is different from the one each parent speaks with the child (see PROFILES: the Morozov family, p 22). “Some multilingual children are slower language learners because they have to cope with so many different codes. But if they have the aptitude, they’ll love it!”

In the end, Dr. Busch argues against purist methodology. “Parents should value all the languages that are present.” The OPOL method is fine if it’s comfortable, she says. Then if the conversation turns polyglot, it’s no problem. “On the contrary! A child must be encouraged to find her own way.