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The Effects of Growing Up

in a
Bilingual Environment

Miranda Valdescona
HD 300
Professor Dan Beaman
June 26, 2016

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The Effects of Growing Up in a Bilingual Environment

Introduction

There is currently an estimated 40 million immigrants living in the United States. Among

these, 25% are said to be children 18 years old and below (“Children in U.S. Immigrant

Families”, 2014), a large number of whom it can be assumed are currently being raised in a

bilingual setting. This research seeks to review the existing studies and research on the effects of

growing up in a bilingual environment. A current popular debate in pertinent literature is whether

or not there are cognitive advantages for children who grow up to be bilingual. There is also

debate on what exactly these perceived advantages are. For instance, do these perceived

cognitive advantages universal across all socioeconomic statuses? Also, does it equate to an

advantage when learning a third language? Another growing view is the necessity of having a

bilingual education for children in the 21st century (Garcia, 2011). There is a push in many

counties in having a bilingual education as a standard, rather than the exception.

This research has a personal significance for me, having grown up in a bilingual

household. My family emigrated in the United States from the Philippines when I was ten years

old. We still speak primarily in Visayan which is the main dialect in Cebu, the region in the

Philippines from where our family hails, 20 years after we moved. What makes things even more

interesting is that my bilingual experience is rooted not only in our immigration but in my

childhood in the Philippines. English is the secondary language of my family’s native country. It

is the official medium of instruction in the school system, as well as the preferred language in

white-collar work settings. Beyond school and work, a large percentage of the popular culture

products consumed in the Philippines is from the United States. All middle to upper class

Filipino children grow up, with varying degrees of fluency, bilingual without even having to

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The Effects of Growing Up in a Bilingual Environment

cross borders or change nationalities. Now, I have four nieces and a nephew who are growing up

in a bilingual setting here in the United States.This research bears significance in my career in

child education, as I teach both monolingual and bilingual students.

This paper is timely in the perspective of national identity. The United States is a country

of immigrants, from its conception up to today. I want to explore how bilingual children are

helping define this identity. Lastly, this research is all the more relevant in the broader

perspective of globalization, with bilingual education practiced in different countries as a way to

cope with a transnational economy and culture.

Research Body

One of the perspectives in having a bilingual background is that it has direct effects in

cognition. A popular theory is that bilingualism provides an advantage in executive function .

Bilingual children are believed to outperform monolingual children on tasks measuring executive

functioning skills, more specifically conflict monitoring and cognitive control. Multiple research

states that that the unique need for early bilinguals to manage multiple languages while their

executive control mechanisms are developing may result to long-term cognitive advantages on

inhibitory control processes beyond the language domain. (Hilchey and Klein, 2011) Simply put,

bilinguals are said to be better and faster at processing two conflicting information, as well as

tuning out irrelevant information in completing a task.

This advantage is usually attributed to bilinguals’ need to exercise selective attention and

cognitive flexibility during when using languages, as both languages remain active even when

one of them is being used. (Poulin-Dubois, Blaye, Coutya, Bialystock, 2011) There are various

methods of proving, disproving, modifying, or expanding on this theory. One method is to

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The Effects of Growing Up in a Bilingual Environment

subject monolinguals and bilinguals to the same set of cognitive tasks or tests and observe any

significant differences between the 2 groups.

In one such experiment, the researchers observed whether or not this claimed advantage

manifests in 2-year-olds who have less experience in language production. They administered a

series of of executive functioning tasks and the cognitive scale of the Bayley test to 63

monolingual and bilingual children. According to their findings, native bilingual children

performed significantly better than monolingual children on the task that tests Stroop effect,

which is the effect of an interference or irrelevant data to one’s reaction time while

performing a cognitive task . In addition, the team did not see any significant difference between

the two groups groups on the other tasks. This, the team claims, supports the specificity of

bilingual effects to conflict-monitoring tasks reported in older children. They further claim that

the result of their study exhibits that the bilingual advantages in executive control are present

even at an early age. (Poulin-Dubois et al., 2011)

Other studies suggest that this advantage is not hindered by socioeconomic and cultural

factors. In a study that aimed to see whether this perceived advantage in executive functioning is

hindered by poverty, administered to 40 Portuguese-Luxembourgish bilingual children and 40

monolingual children from Portugal, the bilingual children were found to

have performed significantly better in selective attention and interference suspension tests.

However, there was no observed group differences in abstract reasoning and working memory

(Abreu, Cruz-Santos, Tourinho, Martin, Bialystok, 2012). While the ability of bilinguals to

inhibit attention to misleading information in carrying out mental tasks is indeed a cognitive

processing advantage, other aspects of cognitive development are impaired for bilingual

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The Effects of Growing Up in a Bilingual Environment

children, the foremost of which is that of receptive vocabulary. Bilingual children score lower

compared to monolinguals in each of their languages. This led pioneering researchers in the past

to believe that bilingualism also impaired children’s ability to solve mathematical problems.

However, further studies disproved this by showing that bilingual and monolingual children who

have equal language abilities also have the same level of competence in solving mathematical

problems. (Kroll, Groot, 2009) One such study conducted among Turkish-German bilingual

elementary students. The findings also demonstrated that bilingual children scored comparably to

theirmonolingual classmates on mathematical problems that required attentional control skills.

However, they performed significantly below their peers on ordinary word language. (Kempert,

Saalbach, Hardy, 2011)

Another method employed in studying this theory of inhibitory control advantage among

bilinguals is to review, contrast, and synthesize existing studies and research. It has been

postulated that not must behavioral and neurocognitive studies of bilingual advantage strive to

determine the true relationship between cognitive control and bilingualism, one should also take

a closer look on the implications of bilinguals’ advanced conflict-monitoring system due to dual-

language management to domain-general roles. A possible role of bilingualism in having a

cognitive advantage might be that “one or more components of the conflict-monitoring system,

having been relied on frequently for managing multiple languages, confer advantages on other

neurocognitive systems for which these same components play a major part.” (Hilchey and

Klein, 2011) Another way to put this is that the effect of bilingualism on the conflict monitoring

system influences and may possibly even improve other cognitive functions as well.

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The Effects of Growing Up in a Bilingual Environment

There has been much speculation, research, and debate on the broad-based advantage

implications of bilingualism. In a study set out to explore the possibility, researches tested

bilinguals and trilinguals to see their adeptness in learning a third or fourth language (Korean). It

was found that while multiple languages help individuals identify phoneme contrasts in other

languages, bilinguals and trilinguals did not necessarily have better phoneme discrimination than

monolinguals, “and the hypothesis that flexibility in categorizing phonemes could explain a

broad advantage in discrimination did not hold.” (Pathis, Oh, Mogilner, 2013)

In the face of the confirmed and still-debated advantages of bilingualism, what are their

possible implications from an education standpoint? For some, they go beyond the cognitive

advantages towards the necessity of a bilingual education in the 21st century. For them, a

bilingual education helps facilitate children’s adeptness to a different languages, translanguaging,

and different modes of expression. Bilingual education is not the same as having foreign

language programs, but to have two languages as the medium of instruction. The latter empowers

children not only to be adept in a multilingual, multicultural world brought upon by

Globalization, but also reinforces their native language while gaining fluency in a widely-used

second language. (Garcia, 2011)

Conclusion

In the course of this research, I discovered that there are widely-accepted advantages of

being raised bilingual. The most well-known of this is that of cognitive control: the ability to rule

out and not be distracted by impertinent information, while solving problems. However, there is

a lack of research in the practical applications of this advantage, as well as the possible effects of

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The Effects of Growing Up in a Bilingual Environment

this cognitive advantage on a bilingual’s adulthood. There are also well-debated on effects of

bilingualism, such as a broad transfer of their language-management and inhibition abilities to

other cognitive function. Although neurological studies have been made, there needs to be a

further exploration of this possibility to arrive at more conclusive evidence. A study of

bilinguals’ overall cognitive functions through various modes (beyond IQ or inhibition tests) are

in order.

On the contrary, there are also documented cases where having a bilingual upbringing

can be a disadvantage. One such disadvantage is the lower performance in solving word-based

Math problems compared to monolinguals. Further research into the above are of paramount

importance to educators. Studying the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism will enable

us to make better-informed decisions on its application. For instance, we can create programs

that deliberately hone the cognitive advantages among bilingual students. We can further hone

their mental flexibility and encourage further development and participation in fields where this

advantage will be most beneficial. Aside from sharpening their cognitive advantages, we can

also find ways of helping bilinguals improve in areas where they are deemed to perform less

ably.

While there is a wealth of research on the effects of bilingualism to cognitive

development and functions, there is a lack of studies on the effects of fostering a bilingual

environment and educational system to national identity. It is of value to find out how this is

shaping the United States both for immigrants and non-immigrants. Aside from this, researchers

can also take a look at how adapting a second language as a medium of instruction is affecting

the national identities of other countries. Lastly, looking at a bilingualism from an educational

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approach is the foremost way we can deliberately develop it as a tool in consciously redefining

our national identity in the face of globalization.

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References

Anonymous, (2014) Children in U.S. Immigrant Families, Migrationpolicy.org

(http://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/children-immigrant-families)

Garcia, (2011), Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective, New York,

NY: John Wiley & Sons

Hilchey, Klein (2011), Are there bilingual advantages on nonlinguistic interference tasks?

Implications for the plasticity of executive control processes, Psychonomic Bulletin

and Review, 18(4), 625-628

Dubois, Blaye, Coutya, Bialystok, (2011), The effects of bilingualism on toddlers’ executive

functioning, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 108(3), 567-579

Abreu, Cruz-Santos, Tourinho, Martin, Bialystok, (2012), Bilingualism Enriches the Poor

Enhanced Cognitive Control in Low-Income Minority Children, Psychological

Science, 23(11) 1364-1371

Kroll, (2009) Handbook of Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Approaches, UK: Oxford

University Press

Patihis, Oh, Mogilner, (2015) Phoneme discrimination of an unrelated language: Evidence for

a narrow transfer but not a broad-based bilingual advantage, International Journal of

Bilingualism, 19(1) 3-6

Kempert, Saalbach, Hardy (2011) Cognitive benefits and costs of bilingualism in elementary

school students: The case of mathematical word problems, Journal of Educational

Psychology, 103(3), 547-561.

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