To Bilingual or Not to Bilingual? – That is the Question

Raising a child is no easy task (or so I’ve heard from my own mother). With many decisions to make regarding your child, where do you even begin? Well, let’s take it one question at a time. Have you ever thought of or are currently considering raising your child as a bilingual? There has been much debate on the pros and cons for many years. Attitudes towards bilingualism used to be largely negative due to language delays observed in bilingual children. In fact, in the early 1900’s, people believed that bilingualism actually caused mental retardation and school failure because of language delays. Parents were thus quick to discourage their children from speaking two languages. However, over time, this negative perspective has drastically changed and evolved to a mainly positive outlook that focuses on the benefits of bilingualism on cognitive development. Parents are even starting to ask, “Is it true that bilinguals are smarter than monolinguals?” A growing number of parents are thus considering raising their children as bilinguals, hoping for successful, intelligent children who will carry on their native language to the next generation. Well now, let’s not get too carried away here. Before parents make that critical decision, they must first bear in mind that while bilingualism does not cause retardation, neither does it necessarily boost intelligence. When answering the question, “Is it better to raise my child as a bilingual?” there is unfortunately no clear-cut answer; like many situations, it depends.
There is much support for cognitive gains for bilingualism. Studies have shown that bilingual children are better at engaging the executive function, a cognitive system that is used when multitasking. These gains appear to persist into adulthood. In a study that compared bilingual and monolingual patients diagnosed with dementia, the onset of dementia was delayed four years for bilinguals compared to monolinguals. In addition to cognitive benefits, bilinguals have a unique awareness of language because they have two perspectives from which to view and understand language.

However, before you jump on board the bilingual train, hear me out on the downsides. Some studies have shown that bilinguals have a significantly smaller vocabulary in a given language compared to monolingual speakers of the same language. When bilinguals attempt to retrieve words from memory, they seem to engage in a different process from monolinguals. Bilinguals access the words less frequently than monolinguals and must simultaneously inhibit the non-target language while searching through the target language for the desired word. This process combined with a smaller vocabulary may contribute to less efficient word retrieval and poorer verbal memory.

There are undoubtedly short-term and long-term costs and benefits to raising children in a bilingual environment. In the end, the decision mainly rests upon the parents’ goals and values. And if you do decide to raise your children in a bilingual household, it’s no easy feat to maintain bilingualism. But that’s a completely different topic. For a discussion on techniques in raising your children as bilinguals and helping them maintain their bilingualism, tune into my next blog!