Bilingual education: How two is better than one 'Bilingual corridor' by Annelies de Haan

Bilingual education: How two is better than one

Bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a variety of ways. But what does this mean for people who are still in the process of becoming a bilingual, such as high school students who follow bilingual education?

"One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”

This is a famous quote by psycholinguist Frank Smith. These open doors do not only represent opportunities for better communication, as bilinguals have often been found to outperform monolinguals in a variety of ways. However, what does this mean for people who are still in the process of becoming a bilingual, the so-called “late bilinguals”, who have not experienced a bilingual upbringing?

Everyone who attends the Dutch school system will start to learn English at least around the age of 10, and will continue education on English language until graduation from high school. In addition to this, more and more Dutch high schools offer bilingual education (tweetalig onderwijs, TTO), where students follow courses both in Dutch and in English. According to the website of the European platform of Dutch bilingual education, the purpose of this is to prepare students to engage in a society that is becoming increasingly internationally oriented. However, research has shown that speaking two or more languages also comes with cognitive benefits that can even protect older adults from the cognitive declines (for example impairments in memory) that are naturally caused by aging. In 2012, The New York Times even published a weblog titled Why Bilinguals Are Smarter claiming that being bilingual makes a person smarter.

Therefore, one may wonder if students following bilingual education show advantages in the regulation of their cognitive processes compared to their peers following regular education? Do these “late bilinguals” show (at least in part) the same cognitive advantages as “early bilinguals”? The answer to these questions is simple: Yes, they do.

In a recent study, we compared two groups of high school students (on average 17 years old). One group of 30 students attended normal monolingual classes, whereas the other group of 29 students followed bilingual classes. The bilingual students had followed at least three full years of bilingual education, with at least 50% of all their classes taught in English. The most important difference between these two groups is that monolingual students do not use English on a daily basis, whereas the bilingual group has to switch back and forth between Dutch and English a number of times a day. We asked all students to perform a task in which they have to switch rapidly and repeatedly between local features of a stimulus (the particles it consists of) and global features (the whole). Our results showed that the bilingual students have less difficulty switching between these two information processing styles (they show decreased so-called switch costs) and that their attention is directed at the details first.

To conclude, Frank Smith was right in more ways than he himself probably thought he was. Even following bilingual education when still learning the second language opens the doors along the way while walking the corridor. These doors represent ways to communicate with an international society. Additionally, as a nice side-effect, it also provides you with a more flexible mind which enables you to switch better between tasks in busy everyday life.

Christoffels, I.K., de Haan, A.M., Steenbergen, L., van den Wildenberg, W.P.M. & Colzato, L.S. (2014). Two is better than one: Bilingual education promotes the flexible mind. Psychological Research. DOI 10.1007/s00426-014-0575-3



Our 16-month old is bilingual (almost tinuirglal) and clearly understands both languages. He isn't speaking much yet but we have been expecting delayed speech development due to our bilingual approach so we are not concerned about it. To make it work for our family, we decided to break one major rule of raising a bilingual child and that is that my husband speaks both Swedish and Hindi with our son, whereas it's apparently best for each parent to consistently speak one language. Swedish is the language we use as a family (and that my husband and I speak with each other) and since I don't speak Hindi, it felt better for us to have a language as a family that we all could share. When we lived in the US Alec was of course exposed to English as well, but now he only really hears English when I read to him (as most of his favourite books are in English).One of the most helpful aids we have found is baby signing. It really helps to bridge the languages as my husband and I both use it with our son, so he quite quickly learns that for example pani , vatten and water are the same word since both my husband and I will make the same sign when we say it.

Shirley Whitney

We're interested in bilingual education from a family perspective. Many of the kids we volunteer with have parents who cannot read in their native language, let alone English. Working on learning English together as a family can build both the family relationships and educational opportunities. Some of the materials we have developed are here:

Victoria Nyst

Thanks for sharing this important study. I hope results like this find there way into the advice given to parents of deaf children with a cochleair implant, who receive little encouragement to expose their deaf child to sign language. According to a recent study (May 2014) children with these implants are two to five times more at risk of executive function deficits when compared to children with normal hearing. These deficiencies include difficulties with organizing, controlling and processing information, remembering details, paying attention, and managing time and space.