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Vivian Cook Writing System Topics Online Writings

The consequences of
bilingualism for cognitive
Vivian Cook

In A. de Groot & J.F. Kroll (eds.), 1997 Tutorials in

Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Perspectives, Lawrence
Erlbaum, 279-300

Perennial questions about bilingualism concern the

relationship between the two language systems in the
same mind. Do they form two separate systems for
processing language or a single combined system? Does
one language aid or interfere with the other? Are there
differences in other areas of the mind than language
between a person who knows one language and someone
who knows more than one? The more complex system
involving two languages may confer benefits or losses on
areas of the mind other than language: bilinguals and
monolinguals may think in different ways.

The term cognitive has led to some confusion in this type

of discussion. Linguists seem to assert both that linguistics
is a branch of cognitive psychology, as it is concerned
with the human mind, and that the language faculty is
entirely distinct from all other faculties of the mind, i.e.
different from cognition. Linguists furthermore often
distinguish between the abstract knowledge of language
called competence and the cognitive processes involved
in the actual production and comprehension of speech,
called performance. Psychologists, however, often
explore the relationship between cognition (i.e. the rest
of the mind) and language, for example Cromer (1974).
This chapter employs the term cognitive broadly within
this range of possible definitions. It should also be noted
that the term second language (L2) is here used to cover a
wide range of knowledge of languages other than the
native language; the term L2 user is also preferred as
being a more encompassing category than L2 learner,
including people who have finished learning as well as
those still in the process.

This chapter restricts itself to the relationship of L2 using

to cognitive processing rather than being concerned with
language knowledge. Interesting as models of language
competence such as parameter-setting may be, they treat
language as a separate faculty of the mind and language
competence as distinct from language performance, and so
cannot in principle entertain the types of relationship
discussed here even if some speculative links could be
made. Furthermore the recent development of the
Minimalist Program with its restriction of parameters to
the lexicon has put much of the L2 research based on
principles and parameters in jeopardy since it is closely
tied to the now outdated principles and parameters model
of the 1980s (Cook & Newson, 1996).

The way in which the relationship between bilingualism

and cognitive processing is approached depends upon the
ideology of the questioner. The standard approach is the
monolingualist view that the norm for human beings is to
know a single language; any deviation from the
monolingual standard is going to have a cost. To the
monolingualist the person who uses two languages is odd;
it is natural to have a single nose and a single mouth,
unnatural to have two of each or to be seven feet tall. A
person who has two languages is then strange in some
sense, obviously different from the normal person. Hence
the questioner looks for the differences caused by this
unnatural condition of knowing two or more languages,
whether with using the first or the second language
separately or with mental processes.

On the one hand this leads to the concept of L2 cognitive

deficit (Long & Harding-Esch, 1977): the mental
activities that one carries out through a second language
will be fractionally less efficient than in the first language.
Section 1 will examine this subtractive view of
bilingualism. On the other hand some monolingualists see
knowing a second language as a deviation from the
monolingual norm in a positive direction. The L1
processing of L2 users may become richer, their mental
processes more effective or their view of the world more
balanced, than those who know only one language. This
view is perhaps prevalent in education. The question is
how the processes of the two languages relate, whether
there are in fact definite positive effects on mental
processing. Section 2 will report on some of the evidence
for this additive view of bilingualism.

Opposed to this general monolingualist approach in

principle is the multilingualist view that it is normal for
human beings to know more than one language. It is the
monolingual that is deficient, having been deprived of the
natural human heritage. The perspective can be reversed;
what matters is the cognitive deficiency suffered by
monolinguals. The questions are how much monolinguals
lose overall from knowing only one language and what
lacks they have in other mental processes. This
multilingualist alternative looks at the same evidence
from another viewpoint; we will consider at the at the end
whether this difference could ever be settled through
research or is indeed an ideological, political, or moral



This section looks in general at the subtractive view that

learning a second language means subtracting something
from the monolingual state, looking at deficiencies in the
processing of the first and second languages as well as in
memory systems.

Deficiency in processing the L2

It is perhaps blindingly obvious that L2 users are less

efficient in the second language than native monolinguals.
Many of them are after all still learners and hence not
fairly comparable with native speakers. Teachers often
make the uncheckable assertion that 80% of the L2
learners of English in the world at any given time are
beginners. It is hardly surprising that L2 users are less
efficient at the L2 than are native speakers in terms of
accuracy and of speed. A truer comparison might be with
L1 children after a similar number of hours of using the
A typical effect with syntax can be seen in an experiment
with the binding relationship between pronouns and their
antecedents (Cook, 1990). Native speakers scored 93%
correct in saying that him referred to John in sentences
such as John said Peter helps him, advanced Japanese
users of English 92%; Yet timing measurements show
native speakers took 4.6 seconds to decide, Japanese users
7.6 seconds; on John said Peter helps himself native
speakers scored 91% correct in choosing himself as
referring to Peter versus Japanese 76%, timings 4.2
seconds vs 7.1 respectively. The comprehension times of
foreign learners of English were longer than those of
native speakers even though the L2 speakers clearly knew
the binding relationship. Lehtonen and Sajavaara (1988)
summarize a series of acceptability judgement
experiments with Finns learning English as an L2; visually
presented sentences took an average of 5.1 seconds to
judge, compared to native speakers 3.1, auditorily
presented sentences 2.1 compared to native speakers 1.3.
The short-fall on this acceptability task is similar to that
on the comprehension task.

One issue is whether the few L2 learners that become

balanced bilinguals, or ambilinguals as Halliday,
McIntosh, and Strevens (1964) call them, are actually
processing the L2 in the same way as monolingual native
speakers - now sometimes called the problem of ultimate
attainment in L2 learning (Birdsong, 1992): does the L2
learner ever become the same as the native speaker? The
usual research cited is Coppetiers (1987) which
demonstrated that successful bilingual American residents
in France still differed in grammaticality judgements from
native French speakers; while the native speakers varied
from the norm between 5% and 16%, the non-native
speakers varied between 23% and 49%; none of the 21 L2
users fell within the extreme bounds of the native group.
In the earlier literature this difference was usually covered
by the notion of the bilinguals dominant language, in
which, inter alia, there were more word associations to a
given stimulus (Lambert, 1955), and reaction times for
words were faster (Lambert, 1956). The rarity of
ambilinguals leads to the vast literature of individual
variation in L2 learning, for example Skehan (1989); if
people cannot learn an L2 as efficiently as an L1 then
much may be learnt by studying their lack of success
compared to the almost uniform efficiency of the L1 child.

Thus the overall point is that people process a second

language less swiftly than their first. It is not that the L2
users are ignorant of the syntax or the vocabulary of the
language, or even that they necessarily make more
mistakes; it is just that they use it more slowly.

Deficiency in processing the L1

However, for the monolingualist, the consequences of

knowing an L2 can be even more dire: L2 users may lose
efficiency in their first language as well as speed. The
presence of an L2 in the mind in some way detracts from
the L1. This effect was established in a series of
experiments carried out by Edith Magiste. One experiment
(Magiste, 1979) studied German children aged 13-18
learning Swedish in Sweden, using a variety of tasks, such
as timing how long the children took to name objects in
the L1 and the L2; after about 5.5 years in Sweden the
children were as fast in Swedish as in German and they
gradually became faster still in Swedish. Yet, after 17
years, they were still 0.2 seconds slower than Swedish
monolinguals on the naming task, supporting the idea of
deficit. However their speed in German stayed about the
same rather than improving, as might have been expected.
So the children who had been in Sweden one year were
faster in German than children who had been there ten
years - their native performance was, if anything,
declining. On decoding tasks such as Mark the third letter
from the left, monolingual subjects of German and
Swedish were also consistently faster than bilinguals, who
were in turn faster than trilinguals, namely a reaction time
of 0.8 seconds per item for monolinguals, 1.0 seconds for
bilinguals and 1.3 for trilinguals. A second experiment
(Magiste, 1986) used the same tasks with a younger age
group aged 6-11 as well as 13-18s; results showed the
same pattern of switch-over from L1 to L2, with slight
loss in the L1 over time and with the L2 not reaching
native speeds. A third experiment on the same lines
(Magiste, 1992) found that younger children (average age
8) switched over to the second language at an earlier point
than the older children (average age 14); younger
childrens reaction times in the L1 German naming tasks
started to decline after one year, older childrens after 2

In general then these experiments support Magistes

conclusion that The very fact of having available more
than one response to the same stimulus may lead to slower
reaction times unless the two response systems are
hermetically isolated from each other (Magiste, 1986,
p.118). This was supported by Ransdell and Fischler
(1987) who also found that adults who had been bilingual
all their lives were slower at responding on list recognition
and lexical decision tasks even if their accuracy was the

Short Term Memory (STM)

Short Term Memory (STM) has been used mostly as a

general term for short-term storage of information, in the
tradition of the classic article by Miller (1956) that showed
that human information processing seemed to be limited in
a capacity of 5-9 items, called the magic number 7 plus or
minus 2. Early L2 research aimed to show that STM span
was comparatively limited in a second language.
Experiments asked learners to repeat or write down strings
of words or numbers and then calculated the individuals
maximum span. Glicksberg (1963) measured an increase
in L2 digit span in adult students from 6.4 digits at the
beginning of a course in English to 6.7 at the end eight
weeks later; there was a final deficit of 0.8 digits
compared to their L1 scores. Cook (1977) contrasted the
average span of 5.9 digits for adult beginners in English
with the 6.7 of advanced learners. Cook (1979) linked
span to age and found that, though digit span improved in
both languages by 0.7 digits for English secondary school
children learning French between 12 and 14, they had a
shortfall of 2.8 digits in French at both ages. It seemed
then that this type of task also revealed a cognitive deficit
in STM in the L2.

However the source of this deficit was not clear. Why

should the language employed make a difference to the
span? Some early psycholinguistic experiments had
attempted to establish a correlation between memory
processing and syntax; for example, Savin and
Perchonock (1965). More recently linguists working with
parsing postulated buffer memory systems capable of
holding syntactic constituents for later processing; for
example Marcus (1980).

The growth-point for STM research in psychology has,

however, been the phonological system. Since the work of
the 1960s with confusable letters (Conrad, 1964), it had
been claimed that STM relies on sounds, not syntax; all
types of language information coming in to the memory
system have to be encoded in phonological terms. Cook
(1977) compared L2 word spans for adult beginners and
advanced students of English, taking two types of word:
similar-sounding words such as cat, mat, bat and different-
sounding words such as bus, spoon, train. Beginners had a
span of 3.5 similar-sounding words compared with 4.5
different-sounding words; advanced learners had a span of
3.7 similar-sounding words and 5.0 different-sounding
words. While the advanced learners were better than the
beginners, both had a shortfall for similar-sounding words,
showing that they were using phonological coding. The
phonological basis of STM could be established on the
same grounds in L2 processing as in L1 processing. This
is in itself interesting in that some aspects of memory are
developmental: L1 children up to the age of five
remember objects through shapes and colours rather than
sounds (Conrad, 1972) but adult L2 learners use labelling
as a memory aid in Short Term Memory like native adults
rather than returning to the state of young native children
(Cook, 1981). In STM at any rate L2 adults are not
recreating the system from scratch but employing an
adult phonological-based principle from the start.

Working Memory

During the 1980s the links between STM and language

were developed through the working memory model of
Alan Baddeley (Gathercole and Baddeley, 1993). Working
memory is in a sense a complementary term to Short Term
Memory, stressing the aspects of STM that are involved
in the temporary processing and storage of information
(Gathercole and Baddeley, 1993, p.2). In the Baddeley
model, working memory consists of a central executive,
which controls how information is passed around the
system, and of visual and phonological slave systems
which temporarily process and retain the information
appropriate to their two modes. The phonological system
has a phonological store, which can hold information for
about two seconds, and a phonological loop that recycles
information back through the store to extend its life, that is
to say by repeating information over and over whether
audibly or inaudibly.

Baddeleys Working Memory Model (simplified)

Working memory capacity in this theory is linked to the

articulation of sounds in a language and to the amount that
can be said during the two seconds window. Hence more
short words such as wit can be stored in working memory
than long words such as university since short words take
less time to articulate than long words (Baddeley,
Thomson, and Buchanan, 1975); people who can articulate
more sounds in two seconds will have larger spans. Digits
with fewer syllables or shorter vowels can be said more
quickly than those that are longer. Consequently speakers
of languages with short words for digits such as English
will have a longer digit span than those with longer words
such as Arabic (Naveh-Benjamin and Ayres, 1986);
speakers of Chinese which has short digits have better
digit spans than speakers of English (Stigler, Lee &
Stevenson, 1986). There is also some interaction with the
written mode of language; speakers of Hebrew, whose
writing system is based on consonants, have a superior
span for sequences of consonants of 7.3 letters compared
to the 5.4 letters of English, whose writing system uses
both vowels and consonants (Kinsbourne & Cohen, 1971).
Though it is hard to compare the results of experiments
carried out with different techniques, Chinese speakers
seem to hold the digit-span record with 9.9 digits
(Hoosain, 1979). One side effect is that people who speak
faster will have higher scores on IQ tests, in so far as some
IQ tests involve digit repetition, and hence reward people
able to say more digits in two seconds than those who
speak more slowly; Welsh children for example have
smaller digit spans than US children because of the greater
length of Welsh digitsaverage duration 385 milliseconds
per digit compared to English 321 milliseconds (Ellis,
1992), contributing to poorer performance on the Weschler
intelligence test (Ellis & Henneley, 1980) .
The source of the L2 deficit might be in the central
executive, which decides how to handle information, or in
the phonological store, which stores information provided
to it through the articulatory loop, or in the articulatory
loop itself, which recycles information continuously in
phonological form. Most L2 research to date deals with
the relationship of the phonological system to learning
rather than to processing, though the two strands of code-
breaking and decoding are well-nigh impossible to
disentangle (Cook, 1991). Service (1992) found that
accurate repetition of English pseudo-words by Finnish
children learning English was a good predictor of success
at English two years later, showing the relevance of
phonological encoding to L2 learning; she claimed that the
actual encoding of language into sounds is a function of
the central executive rather than the articulatory loop.
Service and Craik (1993) extended this research to deal
with age: old people (average age 72) relied more on
phonology in learning L2 vocabulary than young people
(average age 25.2). Papagno, Valentine & Baddeley (1990)
used the task of articulatory suppression (muttering sounds
while carrying out a memory task, thus occupying the
articulatory loop) compared with tapping (a non-verbal
task that does not tie up the articulatory loop); subjects
had to acquire lists of paired words either in the L1 or in
the L1 and the L2. After five trials with tapping, subjects
succeeded in learning 7.5 pairs of words within the same
language, their L1 Italian and 6.1 pairs that linked L1
Italian with L2 Russian; with suppression, they learnt 7.0
pairs in L1Italian, but only 4.2 pairs L1/L2 Italian/
Russian pairs. Thus, suppression disrupted the learning of
L1/L2 pairs far more than same-language L1 pairs. The
authors argue this demonstrates that the articulatory loop
is involved in the acquisition of new words in an L2.

However the same effect was not found in a second

experiment involving the learning of Russian L1/L2 words
by English learners. So the articulatory loop is not
the only factor. They argue that semantics also plays a
role; this affects going from Russian to English more than
going from Italian to Russian as shown by the greater
number of word association by English subjects to
Russian words than by Italians. Papagno and Vallar (1992)
similarly found that the learning of novel words was
affected for the worse by the length of the word and by
phonological similarity, again implicating the articulatory
loop. Ellis and Beaton (1993) looked at the keyword
method of learning, which requires the learner to make an
imaginative link between the foreign item to be learnt and
the L1 translation, for example learning
French hrisson (hedgehog) via the key word hairy son.
They asked subjects to learn German vocabulary using
this technique or a repetition task of saying each word
aloud; performance turned out to be optimal if both
techniques were involved, i.e. if the semantic keyword
technique were combined with an articulatory loop task.
Brown and Hulme (1992) also used the articulatory
suppression technique with English learners of French:
they found that it indeed cut the digit span from 4.8 to 2.9
digits in French and from 6.1 to 3.6 digits in English. But,
as they point out, while this certainly shows the involve-
ment of the articulatory loop in L2 processing, it does not
explain why the L2 span is smaller in both L2 conditions
than in the L1; they argue for a deficiency in the long term
memory phonological representations of L2 words.
However, in an experiment varying word length with
Welsh/ English bilinguals, Ellis (1992) found articulatory
suppression brought the difference between 6.5 digits in
English and 5.8 digits in Welsh down to non-significance.
The L2 research on Working Memory is thus mostly
concerned with how the different elements contribute to
L2 learning rather than with deficiencies in the L2
processing itself.

Other memory and cognitive processes

There has not so far been the same amount of interest in

extending L2 memory work into Long Term Memory, that
is to say memory processes involving storage for longer
than about 30 seconds. One exception was research by
Long and Harding-Esch (1977) who found that Cambridge
undergraduates studying French not only remembered less
information from talks given in their L2 French than in
their L1 English but also had more false memories of
things which the speaker had not actually said. Hummel
(1986) hypothesised that the extra cognitive processing
required in a second language would increase the amount
that people could remember. Her design tested Canadian
bilingual French/English speakers by varying the order of
two passages in L1 and L2. Subjects remembered more
information from the first passage when there was a
switch of language between the two passages, whether the
second was an entirely different text or a translation of the
first. While this would appear to contradict the Long and
Harding-Esch (1977) results, Hummels repeated passage
design is not strictly comparable with the single text

Some work has also looked at L2 users in the light of the

well-known schema theory experiments of Bransford and
Johnson (1982). Adams (1983) tested American students
of French with the same texts as Bransford and Johnson
and found that knowing what the passage was about
helped them equally in both languages. Hence activation
of the appropriate schema is relevant for processing in
both languages. Carrell (1984) tried to see not only
whether the presence or absence of context made a
difference to how much L2 learners could understand, but
also how important it was whether the text had precise
words like clothes and washing machine, or vague words
like things and facilities. Advanced learners and natives
found lack of context affected their comprehension;
intermediate L2 learners found the use of vague words
was also a hindrance. Interestingly, while native speakers
had a fair idea of how difficult the passages were for them
to understand, non-natives did not. Later research by
Roller and Matombo (1992) did not get the same results:
speakers of Shona actually remembered more of the
Bransford and Johnson texts in English than in their first

To conclude this section, some other cognitive tasks

should be briefly mentioned in which people are more
restricted in their second language than in their first. L2
users for example find it harder to count flashing lights
silently in the L2 (Dornic, 1969). Mental arithmetic is also
harder to do in the L2 (Marsh & Maki, 1976; Ellis, 1992);
this may have more to do with the language in which one
learnt to do arithmetic than whether it is the first or second
language; L2 users of English educated through English as
the medium of instruction may prefer English for such
calculations rather than their L1. Ellis (1992), however,
claims that bilingual Welsh/English children prefer to
calculate in English, since the shorter digit names are more
helpful; in Welsh the time taken for multiplication sums
was 37.2 seconds, in English 28.0 seconds; mistakes in
Welsh averaged 1.6 out of 6 sums, while for English they
are 0.96 out of 6. Peynircioglu and Tekcan (1993)
investigated the ability of Turkish L2 users of English to
recognise words in 4X4 letter squares based on the game
of Boggle. When performing only in the L1 Turkish, they
could find 21.4 words per square, when performing in the
L2 English they averaged 12.8, when performing in both
languages at the same time they found 15.6 Turkish words
and 8.2 English words. Their score of 21.4 in the L1 was
virtually the same as the 20.4 of monolinguals and they
were just as quick at identifying words in the display - 5.5
seconds compared to the monolinguals 5.7 seconds.
Hence Peynircioglu and Tekcan (1993) claim there is no
deficiency for bilinguals on data-driven tasks that use
recognition and lexical decision compared to
conceptually-driven tasks like free recall and object-
naming; this challenges the finding of Ransdell and
Fischler (1987) mentioned above that bilinguals were
slower at the data-driven tasks of list recognition and
lexical decision. It raises the perennial question of whether
bilinguals have one memory or two, which strays outside
our brief here; see Cook (1992) for a summary. Durgu-
noglu and Roediger (1987) argue that the nature of the
task, whether conceptually or data-driven, dictates whether
information is stored in a language-specific mode;
Spanish/ English bilinguals were better at completing
fragments of English words like _l_i_a_ _r (alligator),
when primed with English words than with Spanish
words; it is the fact of having seen the word that counts,
not having processed its meaning, a data-driven task, not a
concept-driven one.

While it strays into the area of language knowledge,

finally we should mention the vexed problem of the links
between language and thinking often called the Sapir-
Whorf hypothesis. Suppose that speakers of different
languages think and perceive the world in different ways
rather than simply talk about it differently. For example
Bahasa Melayu, one of the languages of Malaysia, reflects
Malaysian cooking in recognising several degrees of
saltiness such as masin kitchup salty like soy
sauce, masin ayer laut salty like sea water, masin
garam salty like salt, and masin maung horribly salty;
OMahoney and Muhiudeen (1977) tested the ability of
speakers of Bahasa Melayu and English to distinguish
solutions with different amounts of salt. Malaysians were
indeed able to make much finer distinctions that English
speakers. It is not just that their language is richer in
vocabulary, it is that their perception of taste is different.
In a second language then it would be interesting to see
whether the speakers changed both as they acquire a new
language and as they switch from one language to another.
The only relevant L2 research on this is Caskey-Sirmons
and Hickson (1977), who found that monolingual speakers
of Korean use the word paran sekj (blue) to mean
something greener and less purple than bilingual Koreans
who know English; in other words something of the
second language system is seeping through into their
perception. Virtually all the research in this area has
however been confined to the putative differences between
monolingual speakers of different languages, surveyed for
example in Hunt and Agnoli (1991) and Cromer (1991)
rather than to effects on the L2 on L2 users.

This section has hinted that there may be an interaction

between L2 learning and age. The cognitive processes that
we have been talking are themselves subject to
development; children acquire both the adult working
memory capacity and adult memory processes such as
labelling over years. The ability to process the second
language is to some extent dependent on this, as is the
ability to process the first, as the research by Brown and
Hulme (1992) suggests. On the other hand a critical period
theory of language acquisition has sometimes been
proposed (see chapters by Harley and Ellis in the volume)
that argues that language acquisition is less efficient after
the early teens. The major evidence for this has been from
judgments of foreign accent (Oyama, 1976) and from
grammaticality judgements (Johnson and Newport, 1989)
rather than from the research into cognitive processing
dealt with here, though there are hints of effects of age in
the findings of Service and Craik (1993) that older people
rely more on phonology and Magiste (1992) that younger
children switch to the L2 sooner.

To sum up this section, there is evidence that L2 users are

less effective; in speed of processing the L2 and the L1, in
working memory processing in the L2, and in certain
types of cognitive task in the L2. Most of these deficits are
slight and have to be balanced by the gain that they are
able to use two languages compared to the monolinguals


The alternative view is that knowing a second language

extends rather than diminishes the individuals
capabilities. In one sense this too is obvious; a person who
has two language has access to a range of situations and
experiences that are not available to the monolingual,
whether these are the minimal possibilities conferred by
two years of school French or the maximal possibilities
open to the long-stay immigrant to Paris. If a monolingual
has 100% language capacity in a single language, a second
language user who knows only 5% of another language
has a total of 105%. This can be called the additive mono-
lingualist view: learning a second language increases the
normal capacity of the individual and so confers a benefit
rather than creating a problem.

Metalinguistic awareness and L2 users

One of the virtues ascribed to L2 learning by educational

policy is that it sharpens the individuals awareness of the
nature of language. The UK National Criteria for GCSE
(General Certificate of Education) in Modern Languages
claims one objective is to develop an awareness of the
nature of language and language learning as an end in
itself. An illustrious list of writers who speak two
languages can be cited, in English, including Conrad,
Nabakov, and Beckett, suggesting their writing may have
been facilitated by their L2 learning. Conrad is a
fascinating example of someone with native Polish,
French spoken with elegance , general ease and no
trace of an accent, and English spoken like a foreigner,
talking broken English, according to Virginia Woolf, yet
one of the greatest writers of English prose of the
twentieth century (Page, 1986). General sensitivity to
language and a greater precision in the choice of words are
often claimed to be spin-offs from the ability to use
another language.

The attempt to give precision to the view that learning a

second language has a cognitive advantage for the learner
has led to the area of metalinguistic awareness - the
awareness of language itself independently of the message
it is conveying. However, it should be pointed out that,
from a linguists perspective, the aspects of language
involved in such tests are limited. This is partly due to the
limited range of tasks that have been used, which fall into
three main types: tasks involving phonological awareness
of the sound system of language; tasks involving
grammaticality judgements which can show the persons
underlying knowledge of the language; tasks testing
whether the person can separate the form of language from
the meaning, that is to say awareness of the arbitrariness
of words. Let us then look at the contributions under these
three heads.

phonology and metalinguistic awareness

So far as the phonological level is concerned, early work

by Cohen, Tucker and Lambert (1967) found that bilingual
university students were better able to reproduce sound
sequences that did not occur in their first language than
monolinguals. When a similar approach was applied to
children, however, Davine, Tucker and Lambert (1971)
showed that, while third and fourth grade children in
bilingual French/English classes were better than
monolinguals at perceiving initial consonant sequences
with a French second component, for example /vr/ as
in vrai which does not occur in English, they were not
better at the more general task of perceiving sound
combinations that occur in neither French nor English, say
/bg/. They argued that the general bilingual advantage in
phonology may be slow to develop. Nevertheless Rubin
and Turner (1989) more recently found that primary
school children in French immersion programs were better
at phonemic segmentation than monolinguals.

grammar and metalinguistic awareness

Grammatical awareness has been extensively tested in

research by Galambos and Hakuta (1988) and Galambos
and Goldin-Meadow (1990). The design of Galambos and
Goldin-Meadow (1990) postulated three levels
of language awareness: at the first content level speakers
may be able to say only that a sentence is ungrammatical,
at the next correction level they may be able to correct
what is wrong with it, at the third explanation level, they
may be able to describe the ways in which it is
ungrammatical. Children between four and a half and
eight years of age, who were either monolingual English
or Spanish or bilingual English/Spanish, were asked to
evaluate and correct sentences covering such grammatical
points as noun/verb agreement Claire and Eleanor is a
sister, gender agreement in Spanish El pescado es bien
bonita (the fish (m.) is very pretty (f.)), and
adverb/adjective confusions The smartly boy read very
quickly. Bilingual children progressed through the early
stage of content-oriented awareness more rapidly than
monolingual children; they were not, however, better at
the later stage of explaining the errors. Nor were different
types of error noted for monolinguals and bilinguals. In
other words, while knowing two languages made the
children progress through the levels more rapidly, it did
not give them different abilities from monolinguals.
Galambos and Hakuta (1988) also found a positive link in
Spanish-speaking children between language awareness
and proficiency in the first language.

A slightly different approach has been pursued by

Bialystok (1987, 1993). Her model of second language
acquisition recognizes two different dimensions that add
up to language proficiency: control of processes - the
selection of the information for use - and analysis of
knowledgethe way in which the language is represented
in the mind. An often-made analogy is with a library
where, on the one hand the books are set out on shelves
according to a definite scheme (analysis of knowledge), on
the other readers have a laid-down procedure for obtaining
a book (control of procedures) (Bialystok & Sharwood-
Smith, 1985). For example English learners of German
have a well-known difficulty with the difference between
the Subject Verb Object order of main clauses and the
Subject Object Verb order of subordinate clauses. This
might be because imperfect L2 procedures are controlling
a correct knowledge of German order or because correct
German procedures are controlling an imperfect
knowledge of German. Different uses of language vary in
the contributions they require from the two dimensions of
analysis and control. Childrens conversation is low on
both control and analysis; lecturing is high on control and
analysis, a disc jockeys patter is high on control, low on
analysis, and so on. Different metalinguistic tasks also
vary on the two dimensions: correcting sentences is fairly
low on control, but fairly high on analysis, while making
grammaticality judgements is low on both control and
analysis. In Bialystok (1987) bilingual English/French
children performed in general better than monolinguals on
control-based tasks; bilingual children with literacy skills
also did better on analysis-based tasks. Bilingual children
are better at spotting the grammaticality of semantically
anomalous sentences (Why is the cat barking so loudly?)
(high control) than monolinguals, but slightly worse at
evaluating ungrammatical but non-anomalous sentences
(Why the dog is barking so loudly?) (high analysis); they
are also better at judging how many words there are in a
sentence or string of words (high analysis, high control).
Bilingualism primarily affects the control dimension of
language, though not without effects on the analysis
dimension. Bialystoks contribution puts the different
aspects of metalinguistic awareness within an integrated

arbitrariness of the sign

Since at least de Saussure (1916), linguistics has

emphasized the arbitrary connection between the sounds
or letters that make up a word and its meaning. A rose is
indeed a rose whatever its name. But do most
monolinguals agree? A rural myth has a Wiltshire farmer
saying Rightly is they called pigs because they have such
dirty habits. Most people may indeed find it hard to
separate the qualities of the object from its name.
Logically it might follow that an insight into the
arbitrariness of language will come with greater ease to
bilinguals, since they can see that one object in fact has
two names in different languages.

The classic experiment by Ianco-Worrall (1972) asked

Afrikaans/English children aged 4-9 years whether, if
names could be interchanged, a dog could be
called cow and a cow called dog. Over twice as many
English/Afrikaans bilingual children agreed that this was
possible than monolingual children. Similarly Ben Zeev
(1977) told children that objects had a new name and then
asked them whether it now had the characteristics of the
new name: if we call a bird spaghetti, can we
say spaghetti flies? A more difficult task included breaches
of selection restrictions; if spaghetti is the new word for
children, how do you say They are good children? The aim
was to test if children were capable of appreciating the
arbitrariness of the sign. English/Hebrew bilingual
children were better than monolingual children, despite the
fact that on tests of spontaneous speech they made more
mistakes and that on tests of vocabulary they were below
the monolinguals.

Several other tasks have been used to support the general

notion that bilinguals are better at separating language
form from language meaning. A further element in Ianco-
Worralls experiment involved giving the children three
words, say cap, can and hat and asking them Which is
more like cap - can or hat? The childs choice was
between phonetic similarity (cap/can) and semantic
similarity (cap/hat). Bilingual children at 4-6 years of age
were more likely to choose the semantic option than
monolingual Afrikaans or English children, though by 7-9
years this difference had diminished. That is to say, they
were better able to separate meaning from form. A word
counting task was employed by Bialystok (1986), who
found French/English bilingual children were better than

A neat test of arbitrariness of form and meaning is the size

of words: do big objects have big names? Bialystok (1986)
asked children to say which was the biggest word in such
pairs as hippopotamus and skunk; bilinguals were better
able to keep the word size distinct from the object size and
answer the question correctly. Yelland, Pollard and
Mercuri (1993) employed all possible combinations of big
and large objects with big and large words (ant, cater-
pillar, airplane, whale). After five months of one hour a
week of Italian, English-speaking children in the first class
of primary school showed significant differences from the
monolingual children, though this had largely
disappeared in the next class up. Moreover the bilingual
children were better at tasks of written word recognition;
that is to say they were learning to read better. Indeed
Yelland et al (1993) claim that one of the main benefits of
learning an L2 may be the help it provides with learning to
other cognitive advantages

It has also been claimed that L2 users have advantages in

other cognitive areas. Landry (1974) found that L2 users
scored higher on standard tests of divergent thinking
which value flexibility, originality and fluency, though this
advantage over monolinguals did not appear earlier than
the sixth year of an FLES (Foreign Language in the
Elementary School) program. Lambert, Tucker &
d'Anglejan (1973) showed that children in Canadian
immersion programmes scored better on the unusual uses
test of creativity than monolinguals. Peal and Lambert
(1962) found that bilinguals appear to have a more
diversified set of mental abilities, as seen in performance
on both verbal and non-verbal IQ tests. Feldman and Shen
(1971) showed advantages for bilingual five-year-olds on
tests of object constancy, naming and the use of names in
sentences. Diaz (1985) added to the list of bilingual
advantages measures of conceptual development,
creativity, and analogical reasoning. Accurate
comparisons are necessarily hard to make between
bilingual and monolinguals in view of all the other
possible differences between the groups, such as socio-
economic status. There is also a lingering suspicion that
there is a horse and cart problem: do bilinguals gain
cognitive skills or are the special skills they already
possess the reason why they have become bilingual? This
would not of course apply to those who are not selected by
others or by themselves for second language learning.

Nevertheless the conclusion is often that L2 users do have

advantages, even after a few hours of second language
acquisition (Yelland et al, 1993). This contrasts with the
well-known views of Cummins (1978) that there is a
threshold, below which L2 learning is a hindrance, and
above which it is a gain. Yet it is in a way meaningless to
compare the double system of the bilingual with the single
system of the monolingual in terms of efficiency. While
there may be losses or gains in specific areas, the overall
system of the L2 user is more complex and has a greater
range of uses. The payoffs or losses in other areas of
cognition are outweighed by the ability to use two
languages, with all the benefits it can bring to the
individual and to society.
To sum up this section, the additive effects of using a
second language seem to be an increased metalinguistic
awareness of phonology, syntax, and the arbitrary nature
of meaning, and gains in cognitive flexibility. While none
of these may be overwhelming, they certainly contradict
the notion that L2 using has a decremental effect on the
users cognitive processing in general.


In a sense the consequences of bilingualism for cognitive

processing are a question of swings and roundabouts. The
slight cost of bilingual deficit on language processing is
offset by the slight gains on other cognitive processes,
without mentioning all the other gains of bilingualism in
peoples lives. But is this the right way of looking at it?
Should we ever compare two types of people in terms of a
book-keeping exercise of profit and loss?

Let us come back to the multilingualist view that

knowing two or more languages is the norm. While it
seems hard to garner precise statistics, partly because of
the range of meanings of the word bilingual, it may well
be that most people in the world use more than one
language. Take a typical multilingual situation such as
West Africa. In the Cameroon, two official languages are
spoken, four lingua francas and 285 native languages
(Koenig, Chia & Povey, 1983). Nigeria has 400 languages
including three main languages spoken by 50% of the
population; children learn English and a second major
language at school (Bamgbose, 1994). In these countries a
person needs to use a variety of languages for everyday
living. If the study of second language acquisition had
started in Yaound or Ibadan, their capital cities, rather
than in the West, psychologists would have interpreted
everything from a different multilingualist perspective.
The issue of subtractive elements might have been seen as
a by-product of over-specialisation; if you restrict yourself
to hopping on one foot, you are going to be much better at
hopping than someone who walks on two legs. The issue
of additive elements again would be reversed; cognitive
flexibility, metalinguistic awareness, and so on would be
the normal human state; people would investigate the
reasons why monolinguals do not attain the normal
potential of a human being rather than look at the
deficiencies of bilinguals. Gains and losses in terms of
cognitive processing are then measured against a norm.
The question is: what is the norm?

Undoubtedly the norm in most psychological and second

language acquisition research till now has been the
monolingual, against which L2 users are measured and
found wanting. Most second language acquisition research
techniques for instance do not look at the learners
language in its own right but categorize mistakes in Error
Analysis, look at morphemes missing from obligatory
contexts (defined with reference to monolinguals),
compare grammaticality judgements with those of native
speakers, and so on. The term bilingual has itself
contributed to this bias towards the native speaker
monolingual in suggesting that the only successful L2
learners are those that acquire a knowledge of the L2
identical to that of an L1 speaker; the
term ambilingual seems preferable for this restricted
meaning. Other people are seen as deficient in not coming
up to this virtually unattainable goal. The term second
language learner as used in second language acquisition
research is also misleading as it too implies that people
never get there - they are perpetual learners; second
language user seems preferable as referring to peoples
ability, not to how far they have travelled on a never-
ending stairway to an unattainable heaven.

When Chomsky sets the agenda for linguistics as finding

out what constitutes knowledge of language (Chomsky,
1991), this is interpreted as knowledge of a single
language, not of one or more languages, which he justified
by the argument that the pure idealized form of language
knowledge should be the first object of study rather than
the muddy waters of bilingualism (Chomsky, 1986). Some
writers on bilingualism indeed have started to challenge
this view; the title of Grosjeans important 1989 article
proclaims the bilingual is not two monolinguals in one
person: Romaine (1989) points out it is clear that a
reasonable account of bilingualism cannot be based on a
theory which assumes monolingual competence as its
frame of reference; Hoffmann (1991) says that For the
vast majority of bilinguals, bilingual competence is not
measurable in terms of monolingual standards.
The choice of the norm is then rooted in preconceptions
about the nature of human beings and of human society; in
England the outsider may be the person who speaks more
than one language, in Cameroon the person who speaks
only one. When linking features of language with the
speakers sex, class, or race, linguists have agreed since at
least Labov (1972) to talk in terms of difference rather
than deficit. The same courtesy can be extended to L2
users; the cognitive processes of second language users are
whatever they are, neither to be praised or condemned
relative to native speakers. They should be studied in their
own right, not as deviations from a monolingual norm. As
Grosjean (1994, 1657) puts it, we should see the bilingual
as a specific and fully competent speaker/hearer who has
developed a communicative competence that is equal, but
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