LINGUIST List 14.2784

Wed Oct 15 2003

Sum: Raising Bilingual Children

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


  1. Stefan Ploch, Raising children bilingual or not bilingual

Message 1: Raising children bilingual or not bilingual

Date: Mon, 06 Oct 2003 06:48:06 +0000
From: Stefan Ploch <>
Subject: Raising children bilingual or not bilingual

Re: Query about bilingual children (Linguist 14.2574)

Given the stong views that some seem to have on this topic, I thought
it better not to comment any further but rather let everyone come to
their own conclusions. He that has ears to hear, let him hear.

Finally, thank you to everyone who responded.

Stefan Ploch.

- ---------------------
Julian Bradfield

This is not research, but just anecdotes again - but anecdotes about
disadvantages. I have friends who were brought up bilingually in two
European languages, and who have some desire to write literary
prose. They say that they do not feel completely masters of either
language, although nobody else could distinguish them from other
native speakers. (Both are in the situation of being brought up in X
with one X-speaking and one Y-speaking parent. I've never heard such a
complaint from friends who are brought up in an X-speaking home, but
bilingual because of bilingual environment - for example,
Welsh-English bilinguals with a literary bent seem to write as easily
in either language, and of course many Indians choose to write in

- -------------------
Annabel Cormack

I think the first thing to try is going to your librarian looking
helpless. You could also corner some helpful cognitive psychologist,
or maybe someone in an education department. I don't have very good
access to search engines here, because I'm not faculty, but I'll ask
around, though, and see if I can track it down. Putting 'bilingualism
cognitive development' into Google produces plenty of hits; putting
'delay' in as well produced some hopeful sites. Try:

One of the references I got that way is this:

Comparative studies of reading and problem solving in two languages
TESOL Quarterly, Volume 4, Issue 2 Macnamara, John Washington, DC,
1970, pp107-116

There are some useful sounding journals, too.

And there is a CUP book called Bilingualism in Development by Ellen
Bialystok, which may have some relevant discussion and references,
judging from the contents pages.

- -------------------
Anthea F. Gupta

There is a huge literature. Almost any introduction to bilingualism
will review the literature (e.g. Romaine, Hamers & Blanc) and many
introductions to language acquisition (e.g. Foster-Cohen, Reich).
There are also a number of books on this very subject, by people such
as Jim Cummins, Ellen Bialystok, Colin Baker.

There is a very recent article by one of the leading names in the
field which includes an excellent review of the argument, and which
makes reference to many earlier works.

Genesee, Fred. 2003. Rethinking bilingual acquisition. In Jean- Marc
Dewaele, Alex Housen & Li Wei (eds.). *Bilingualism: Beyond Basic
Principles*. Festschrift in honour of Hugo Baetens
Beardsmore. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 204-228.

In brief, you will find little support from linguists for the view
that bilingualism creates learning difficulties. Earlier studies that
demonstrated this were undertaken where the bilingual children were
from underprivileged minorities.

If children are from poor backgrounds, or if there is societal
prejudice against their language or their ethnic group, they are more
likely to have problems than rich children from the dominant ethnic
group who speak languages with societal prestige. On the other hand,
in societies where there are prestigious groups that routinely raise
bilingual children (such as India) bilingualism is associated with
doing well.

Anyone looking at the evidence can only conclude:

** being raised bilingually is not cognitively harmful and may be
cognitively advantageous (or may make no difference at all);

** whether your bilingualism will be an asset to you will depend on
the value the society in which you are attributes to the languages you

** being born into a poor family or into an ethnic group against which
there is societal discrimination can be harmful.

- -------------------
Kristine Horner

I'm actually surprised by what linguists have told you about children
growing up bilingually. Why not check out the following title:

Hakuta, Kenji. 1986. Mirror of Language: the debate on
bilingualism. Basic Books.

It's a rather accessible account of debates about bilingualism. I've
used it with students, who found it interesting and relatively easy to

Although Hakuta's book deals with a range of topics connected to
bilingualism, he does provide a balanced discussion of a number of
studies on bilingual children: this is particularly the case in
chapters 2 and 3, entitled ''Bilingualism and Intelligence'' and
''Childhood Bilingualism''. Hakuta openly sets out to debunk a number
of myths about bilingualism, but this does not prevent him from
critiquing studies that speak in favor of childhood bilingualism,
e.g. Peal and Lambert's (1962) study on French/English bilinguals in

I recommend this book because, like Hakuta, I find it interesting that
the question as to whether it is 'problematic' to raise a child
bilingually surfaces much more frequently than the inverse question:
is it 'problematic' to raise a child monolingually? The wide-spread
and popular (or 'folk') stigmatization of bilingualism suggests that
greater socio-political factors are involved in the process.

As linguists, I think it is interesting to ask ourselves why it is so
often the case that monolingualism is taken as the starting point or
the default 'position' rather than bilingualism? It was with this
question in mind that I responded to your message and immediately
thought of Hakuta's book.

- -------------------
Saskia Malan

If you are starting out on this issue now, there is a very good introduction by Suzanne Romaine which would provide a good starting point for your further studies: Romaine, Suzanne. 1995. Bilingualism. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

- -------------------
Mark A. Mandel

If you don't already know about it, see Francois Grosjean's work in, I
guess, the early 1980s and/or late seventies. He was (is) a native
French/English bilingual, as we would say, and claimed that rather
than having two native languages he really had none. I believe he
published at least one book about it. He was on the faculty at
Northeastern University, probably in the Psych. Dept., when I was a
postdoc there, 1981-83.

- ------------------- Maren Pannemann

With interest I read your question in the linguistlist with respect to
advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism. I would like to draw
your attention to work done by Ellen Bialystok, York University. At
the ISB4 2003 (International Symposium of Bilingualism) she presented
a paper at the workshop 'Cognitive control and bilingualism',
suggesting that bilingual children and adults are 'more advanced than
their monolingual peers in solving tasks that require control of
attention'. ... 'Bilinguals are superior in their ability to focus
attention on the relevant information and ignore the misleading cues
in order to solve the problems'. 'Bilinguals respond more rapidly than
monolinguals, particularly in conditions where the distraction
position is most interfering.' The task used by Bialystok was the
Simon task. ...

Then I can recommend a book written for parents: 

Eveline de Jong, (1986), The Bilingual Experience, Cambridge
University Press (reprinted 1993).

This book summarises the experience both of parents who succeeded to
raise their children bilingual as of those who failed to do so.

Finally, I think one important aspect often not taken into account is
that bilingual children often have parents who have a higher/academic
education. This has of course a certain impact on the way the child is
supported/stimulated in the process of language acquisition.

- -------------------
Anat Stavans

I read your question on the linguist list and writing to provide some
thoughts and info on the mattaer.

I have been studying bi and trilingualism from birth to adulthood for
the past 15 years (Stavans, 1990 is my dissertation onthe development
of trilingualism from birth - Eric).

I find the literature over the years to be non-commital in the
following sense:

1. Methodological problems: Usually the studies reported are case
studies as these reflect long-term follow-up on development. Those
studies that are empirical in nature tend to provide measures that
while numerically convincing, always seem to represent a utopian
average to which no bi or multilingual can relate but rather
institutions such as educational systems establish policy based on
such results.

2. The study of bilingualism (albeit the mainstream attitude) tends to
view bi or multilinguals as ''one entity'' in two ways: first,
bilinguals are regarded as the sum total of two monolinguals- they are
bilinguals simply by virtue of a phisiological fact namely, the
containment of both languages within one body. Bilingualism is a
special - third state phenomena which is the priviledge or the
handicap of a bilingual individual. (Read anything you can get your
hands on by the following: Grosjean,Genessee , Lanza, Stavans, De
Hower, and Hoffman).

Second, the definition of bilingualism has over the years has been
flexed to the extent that almost everyone on the globe (this being a
global village) can count as bilingual. There are distinctions to be
made between incipient and later bilingualism, functional or
instrumental bilingualism, active or passive bilingualism and so
on. There is almost no care in these comparisons (bi/mono)regarding
issues of pragmetics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics that
account for the history of the individual's bilingualism which in my
view is an integral part of that individual bilinguality as well as

3. In the eye of the beholder/believer - the split between advantages
and disadvantages on bilingualism are a matter of taste, experience,
and beliefs. The training of the researchers advocating one or the
other view seems to me to have a strong impact on the view they
advocate. When reading on this matter keep in mind who is writing.

4. Personally, there is no one bilingual that can be described or
qualified or quantified by one model of either each monolingual system
or a fixed model of bilingual. I mean to say, that even when we
establish the pros and cons of bilingualism we must take care of not
doing so by looking at a bilingual accordint to the ''fixed'' ideal
features of a utopian monolingual of the languages he knows, nor
according to a made up utopian model of bilinguals as these will fail
on two counts:

a. the languages (typologically similar or different) may render
various types of bilingual productions;

b. individual differences in processing language among bi or
monolingual individuals;

c. the needs and style of communication of the individual in different
life situations and social settings may shape the bilingualism in
numerous ways that may not be the same across individuals nor within

5. It is always more difficult to deal with complex systems 
(multilingualism) than simple ones (monolingualism).

On average I do not think that bilinguals experience more learning
difficulties than monolinguals but rather a similar distribution of
difficulties in both types of individuals is to be found. What may
give this impression is what sort of difficulties are we talking about
and how those are diagnosed or tested. To do so there have been
studies sowing that bilinguals do perform better than monolinguals on
both analytic and non-analytic tasks but again it depends which study
you read and how that study impresses you as credible /
convincing. People to read who think like me would be: Genessess,
Grosjean, Kroll, Obler, Lanza, Stavans, DeHower, Meisel and Wei (off
the top of my head) also Baker gives interesting layperson
descriptions on these issues with the educational twist to it.

- -------------------
Douglas Lightfoot

I'm not aware of what's in the archives or in recent literature, but
am raising my daughter bilingually (English/German), and have read
Zweisprachige Kindererziehung by Bernd Kielhöfer (Professor für
romanische Sprachwissenschaft am Institut für Romanische Philologie
der Freien Uni. Berlin) and Sylvie Jonekeit (Pädagogin an einem
Berliner Gymnasium) (1995/1998. Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag). It's
a popular text, but includes a section on precisely your question
(pp. 90-102: Bilanz: Vor- Nachteile der Zweisprachigkeitserziehung).

I haven't read it in a while, but some of the arguments against
raising kids bilingually had to do with: not having enough exposure in
at least one language to be the ''strong language'', bicultural
confusion/identity confusion (familial relation difficulty is also
brought up in the context of there possibly be stress in the family
partly attributable to two parents from different linguistic/social
backgrounds), and some really crazy sounding stuff about kids with two
languages having ''intelligence deficits''! Also brought up is the
claim that learning a 2nd language somehow weakens the 1st, or strong
language. Acquiring literacy in two languages at the same time also
seems to be under question. These arguments often seemed to center
around immigrant families in Gastarbeiter sort of situations, if I
recall right, and some of the negative arguments get very crazy
sounding (these kids are emotionally damaged, stutter, etc.).

A couple of sources noted for negative effects are:

Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in
Assessment and Pedagogy. Clevedon.

Jones, W.R. (1959). Bilingualism and Intelligence. Cardiff.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1984). Bilingualism or not: The Education of
Minorities. Clevedon.

You're probably more familiar with pro-arguments, such as better
acquisition of multilingual phonology, better cognitive adjustment,
more curious/aware of the phenomenon of language (I strongly vouch for
this one), positive academic performance in general, and so on. See
Cummins (1984) for some of this, too.

- -------------------
Jo Tyler

Regarding your inquiry to the Linguist List 14.2574: You might find
the following article of interest Cummins, Jim. 1976, April. The
Influence of bilingualism on Cognitive Growth: a Synthesis of Research
Findings and Explanatory Hypotheses. In Working Papers on
Bilingualism. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
pp. 1-43. Reprinted in Colin Baker & Nancy H. Hornberger (Eds.).
2001. An Introductory Reader to the Writings of Jim
Cummins. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 26-55.

- -------------------
Andrew Wilcox

Cook, V. 1997. The consequences of bilingualism for cognitive
processing. in A.M.B. de Groot & J.F. Kroll. eds. 

Tutorials in Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Perspectives. Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum. pp.279-299.

- reviews research up to about 1993. The bibliography of >70
references should be useful. The author covers both sides of the
debate fairly, I think, though he comes down in the end very much on
the ''for'' side.

Oller, J.W. 1997. Monoglottosis: What's wrong with the idea of the IQ
meritocracy and its racy cousins? Applied Linguistics 18/4:467-507

- an attack on IQ as a construct and as used in assessment, in the
context of bilingualism. One might find here support for the view that
in some cases where a bilingual disadvantage was found, this was an
artefact of testing.

- ------------------- 
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