Thursday, 12 February 2009

Bilingual children

As anyone who uses Google knows, it was 200 years ago today that Charles Darwin was born.  Charles Darwin may, or may not, become relevant to this post.

There was no mention of Darwin on this morning's BBC Breakfast news, but there was a feature about bilingual education.  For the last 20 years there has been a steady increase in the numbers of pupils in the UK who are taught in Irish, Welsh, or Scots Gaelic.  Devolution of powers from Westminster has meant increasing differentiation of education and has allowed schools to teach in any of these languages.

During the programme it was said that there is evidence that children who are brought up bilingual have higher IQs.  The implication was that bilingualism increases IQ.  As usual the BBC gives no evidence, nor can I find anything at all about the feature.

It may be true that a bilingual upbringing will increase IQ but there could well be other factors at work. 
  • Perhaps only intelligent children cope well enough to stay in bilingual education.
  • Perhaps having a second language somehow helps children perforn well in IQ tests.
  • Perhaps (and this is where Darwin may possibly come in) parents most likely to raise/educate their children bilingually are above average intelligence themselves, and their children would be intelligent regardless.
Does anyone whose children are bilingual have any views on this?  Anonymous j, I know, has bilingual children - are you there Anonymous j? 

I'm absolutely sure knowing a second language is a huge benefit in many ways and I'm delighted that my as-yet-hypothetical grandchildren will be truly bilingual.  I just wonder what the real evidence is that it causes a rise in IQ. Actually, I have all sorts of questions, such as
  • What is the definition of bilingualism?
  • Is there an age constraint on becoming bilingual?
  • Are children brought up in England now at a grave disadvantage?
Fascinating subject.  I jsut wish I could find out more.


  1. Having an IQ which measures out somewhere in the range between a small rock and an adult lab rat, I am admittedly unqualified to speak to your post. Also I can barely speak even one language on more than a really elementary level - and even then I need many hand motions and varied grunts and whistles. Being unqualified, however, has never deterred me before (I am an American) so here goes:

    High IQ is the result of test-taking and being able to score well on tests. The questions are (most often) geared to the dominate culture of the place where the test is given. Really intelligent people who were born and somewhat raised in deeply different foreign lands score lower than people who were raised in the dominate culture.

    This is not to say we should throw out IQ tests, but only to point out that that there are often more than a few serious variables that require multiple types of tests.

    I don't know about bilingualism increasing IQ. My wife's first language was Spanish because that was spoken in the home. When she began to go out and about and started school she learned English. Our children don't speak Spanish because it wasn't spoken in our home except for my wife talking to her parents on the phone. Our children, sadly, were not around their maternal grandparents enough to pick it up. Oddly, my wife never had a Spanish accent, at least not since I met her, so the indoctrination growing up in an English-speaking culture is apparently pretty thorough.

    IQ? I don't know. She has always been a hell of a lot smarter than I, so it is probably true that bilingualism increases IQ. But I am hardly a test for her.

    I am sorry this is so long. I do that a lot. Most idiots do. I am leaving now.

  2. Max. As usual, I can't even start to answer you. So I'll jump in at the middle. If your wife is smarter than you are, then I'm terrified of her already.

    I agree entirely that people can be schooled in IQ tests and that's why I wonder if there is something about being bilingual helps in test taking - the separation and analysis that must take place unconsciously. I've no idea. Just a thought.

    One of the major advantages for being raised in a bilingual environment has to be the mix of cultures, adding a richer background than the child might otherwise experience. That, I imagine, could happen without necessarily learning the language, though language is yet another dimension. No doubt your children and very likely you too, have picked up more Spanish and Spanish culture than you might think.

    Interesting that your wife never had a Spanish accent. I met an American couple on holiday a few years ago. The wife asked if I thought her Spanish accent noticeable. She just sounded American to me.

    Thanks for your interesting reply, Max.

  3. The cynic in me thinks that this is just another example of special pleading. Bi-lingual education costs money and as we all know money is in short supply and local authorities will be searching for cuts they can make. No coincidence then that a story like this appears just now.

    As to the research itself, it seems to me to be a clear case of confusion between cause and effect. Children who are good at picking up one language will be good at learning others. I've never heard of a child who was illiterate in one language being better able to cope if taught in two.

  4. Heck, throw a small subject at me, why don't you?

    I'll break it down into subsections to make my brain hurt less (have a gueule de bois this morning)

    A) To be truly and totally bilingual one needs to have grown up with a parent of each language and hopefully also been educated in both so that each is as fluent,natural and erudite as the other. In the developed world this tends to be children of diplomatic families. Labourers also repatriate for work but are less likely to be both parents different maternal language. In other parts of the world however, bi or even tri-lingualism are much more common with indiginous languages being used within extended family and parents making sure their children understand the 'imposed' language (usually French or English in preparation for school.

    B) My kids are almost bilingual (most people would class them as fully-so, but I'm a terror for splitting hairs/infinitives).
    They live in and are schooled in France but with two English parents and a Daddy that doesn't DO languages. We speak English at home and watch the Beeb, though I will yell at them in French when out and about (ex au-pair). There are marked linguistic differences between them. The Daught, though still wee when transplanted had already been through playgroup/kindergarten in England and subsequently did Reception class in an English speaking school (French system wouldn't accept her health problems and I refused to send a very intelligent child to special school). Despite being in the French system since GS Maternelle (age 5-6) she still shows a marked preference for English and an aversion to French.
    The Boy, though less than two years younger has known nothing other than the French system (won't say better/worse, will diplomatically stick with different). He has more vocab gaps in English than French and when talking about something for the first time in English comes out with some very Norman expressions (that's Guillaume le batârd not Wisdom).

    {Bii) Most people class me as tri-lingual as German (used to be, less so now after a decade in la Belle Patrie) on a par with French and I have no difficulties understanding or expressing ideas on most any subject in either language, however the way I construct my sentences is most definitely non-native. Also, unless I'm able to remain aloof and continue thinking in English, I find it taxing to switch between the two as if I'm thinking in French the German gets masked, and vice versa. This is to do with how memory pathways are formed, put simply both are in the foreign language slot) My kids don't have that problem (see C)}

    C) Am no neurologist, but have been told by those who know these things that if a language is learned by living with a 'target' language parent or by being exclusively educated in the target language it takes (5 years from age 2 to 7) for the brain to develop truly bilingual pathways. That is to say that after age 2to3 the target language is not registered as the natural norm for communication, and after 8 the brain pathways are starting to 'solidify' therefore the target language would be classed as 'foreign' and stored in the same way as I do French/German. A child raised from birth/very early childhood through to end primary school will use the language in a natural way even if subsequently moved. There have been plenty of cases with refugees not realising they speak Polish/German as had moved from there at a young age, (for obvious reasons will not be breaking Godwins Law on A's blog), until later in adulthood noticing that the rest of the family don't understand the gibberish found by accident on the radio/overheard in a shop queue).
    Unfortunately, starting to learn a new language after the age of 9, even with total immersion, one is unlikely to become truly bilingual.

    D) Pros & Cons :
    Pros : Any extended stay in a different language as a child opens the ear and makes subsequent language learning a lot easier, even a different one from that experienced.

    Bilingual kids also tend to be good at Maths and music, and most importantly with regard to the icky IQ tests, at lateral thinking; bilingual also means bi-cultural so an acceptance that different ways of doing things are equally valid - a good example is the way maths is taught very differently in France and the UK, but the answer should (usually) be the same.

    {About 6 months back read a brilliant article on IQ tests by someone who scores very high but values practical/emotional intelligence more - if I have time will forward, might even have been via Relax Max}

    Cons : I have no scientific proof, but have noticed a far higher incidence of dyslexia, dyspraxia and ambidextrousness? in the bilingual kids. When this is severe the parents have little choice but to stick to the language used for school as it isn't worth a kid being ever unable to read in both, better to concentrate on one, even the foreign one if repatriation isn't feasible.

    Not all teachers in the host country will be understanding, or even tolerant of the quirks that come from being raised bi-culturally. I have horror stories too numerous for here of teachers from 'l'édu nat' not permitting questions from kids who've been taught, English-style, to be curious.

    As with Max I'll post the caveat that all the above is hearsay and circumstantial, not scientific fact. And am in complete agreement with Max that a lot of 'knowledge' is culturally based - get your remote control out and compare your scores on 'Les chiffres et les lettres'/Countdown, 'Questions pour un Champion'/Millionaire and le 'Maillon Faible'/Weakest Link. Voilà un défi!


  5. @LR, you could very well be right, that it is a prelude to wanting more money, or at least protecting what they have. I hadn't thought of that. It was unfortunate that I missed the start of the feature, and even more irritating that I can find nothing else about it.

  6. @j, thanks! Now that's what I call a comment! A really interesting insight.

    I met a young woman when I was whose father was Scottish and mother from Norway. She was brought up bilingually at home,, spent the first few school years in Scotland and then moved to Norway. She was, as far as I could tell, totally bilingual even using your definition, but she didn't think she was because she insisted she had a slight accent when speaking English. There was none that I could detect (but I'm now beginning to wonder if I don't have an ear for accent). I helped her with some translation work she was doing a book of Fay Weldon's but I forget which. It was quite interesting - it involved arranging words describing genitalia in order of rudeness so that she could use correspondingly rude Norwegian words. Great hilarity.

    It reminds me too, of how "fluency" is defined. Personally I don't see any merit in being fluent if you aren't reasonably grammatical. Other people would disagree, and say that as long as the words flow, accent and grammar don't matter at all.

    Back to the subject. You have some fascinating information and thoughts on the subject there j. I wonder if anyone has done a study of the dyslexia etc. connection? That could be quite a good piece for research. Many thanks for your input. We may explore the odd quirks of French education at a later date. I have some odd stories too, though probably rather dated now.

  7. I find it very encouraging that more and more schools world wide are offering multiple languages to young students. I hope that in these world wide hard economic times, our politicians are enlightened enough not to cut these programs.
    As to your question about IQ, my younger sister was 3 when we moved from New Jersey to Puerto Rico. She was placed in an all Spanish speaking school. I was 5 and placed in a classroom that had one teacher that taught in English and one that sat next to her and taught in Spanish. (I went on to take German in college and can understand Italian, some french and some Greek and Russina) My older sister was 7 and in a classroom that was only taught in English. (She went on to take some French in high school)
    I'd say my younger sister had the highest IQ, mine is next and then my older sister. If your theory is correct, then we followed suit.
    Neither of my sisters encouraged their children to learn other languages, and none of them have.
    I married a Puerto Rican and moved back to Puerto Rico for a few years when my children were very young. We spoke Spanish at home to each other and my husband's family, not to our children except for teaching them some words and phrases. When our daughter took Spanish in high school in Florida, she picked it up as if she'd spoken it her whole life. She said it was easy because she'd heard it her whole life. Our son didn't do so well and to this day has no desire to learn any second language. As for IQs, they both are very high, our son's being higher, so I guess they don't fit the theory as well as my sisters and I do.

    It's my hope that more and more people encourage their youngsters to learn more than one language.

    Joy Delgado
    Illustrator and publisher

  8. Well you did make the mistake of asking, though I should probably have posted a'put the kettle on, you'll need coffee' warning at the beginning ;-)


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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