Bilingual Kids Bilingual Kids
National Institute of Health

Bilingual kids may have a cognitive advantage over monolingual kids

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In a NIH study bilingual kids did much better on a cognitive test compared to kids who only speak English.


Akinso: An NIH funded study in Toronto, Canada, shows children who are bilingual – speaking two languages – do better on a cognitive test compared to children who are monolingual, only speak one language, in this case English.

McCardle: Basically bilingual and monolingual children follow the same milestones of language development.

Akinso: Dr. Peggy McCardle specializes in bilingualism here at the NIH.

McCardle: Where they differ, researchers have pointed out both advantages and disadvantages. Some of the disadvantages are that if you look at just one language for a bilingual child, their vocabulary is probably smaller in that language than that of a monolingual child. But that’s true in each of their languages, so it kind of balances out.

Akinso: The researchers compared about 106 six year olds to measure their cognitive growth. Dr. McCardle says Canadian researcher Ellen Bialystok compared four groups in the study.

McCardle: She had English monolingual students, and then she had three different sets of bilingual students. One set was Chinese-English bilingual, one was French-English and one was Spanish-English. And she chose those languages so that she could maximize the contrast between the types of languages. She found that the bilingual children had better ability to flexibly switch task. For example if you give them a rule and say classify all of these pictures based on a certain characteristic or certain rule and then you change the rule how quickly can they pick up on that and change with you. And the bilingual children were really more cognitively flexible, better able to do that than the monolingual children were.

Akinso: Dr. McCardle emphasizes the importance of understanding bilingualism.

McCardle: English learners, kids whose first language at home is not English, are the most rapidly growing group of children in the US educational system. And we need to know how they learn and whether it’s worth keeping them bilingual or should we just forget about their native language and only teach them in English and make them switch sort of to English. And the hope from research like this is that educational and national policies would be informed by this work.

Akinso: She adds that this study demonstrates that the advantage is really tied to bilingualism and how valuable bilingualism can be for kids. For more information on this topic, visit For NIH Radio, this is Wally Akinso– NIH…Turning Discovery Into Health.