Does bilingualism affect children’s cognitive development?

If a child can speak two languages, how does that bilingualism affect cognitive development and scholastic performance?

That is one of the questions Ellen Bialystok will explore over the next five years with a US$1.4-million research grant from the US government’s National Institutes of Health.

Over the past three years, Bialystok’s research has made headlines around the world for her findings that lifelong bilingualism can delay dementia (see YFile Jan. 15, 2007), that bilingual children learn faster (see YFile Nov. 23, 2005) and that being bilingual keeps the brain sharp (see YFile  June 25, 2004).

Bialystok began studying children’s cognitive development and the experiences – mainly bilingualism – that affect their development. Then she became interested in lifetime consequences of bilingualism on cognition. Now she shifts her research gaze back to children.

With this new grant, she will study children’s cognitive and linguistic development and how it is linked to academic achievement. She will look exclusively at children from Toronto, due to the city’s unique multicultural makeup. 

"Most children in the world are bilingual, or use different languages at home and at school, yet almost all the research on language and cognitive development is conducted on monolinguals," says Bialystok, a Distinguished Research Professor in psychology at York. "We now know that there are both advantages and disadvantages for bilingual children as they develop. This research will help to identify what those differences are, what the effects are for young children, and what we can do to help all children develop language, literacy, and cognitive skills to their optimal level," she says.

Bialystok will investigate how bilingualism affects children’s executive functions – the basis of all higher thinking, including planning, attention, and monitoring – and higher cognitive abilities in spatial and mathematical domains. The results will help uncover the impact of bilingualism on children’s academic achievement by identifying the basic skills that underlie problem-solving in these areas.

 Bialystok also aims to investigate bilingualism’s impact on how children develop language skills and acquire literacy. "It’s a well-known fact that bilingual children control a smaller vocabulary in each language than their monolingual counterparts," Bialystok says. "This needs to be examined in much greater detail."

Isolating factors that are related to bilingualism, such as social class, education, cultural expectations, and immigration, is an important goal of the study, says Bialystok. "Monolingual and bilingual children have many different experiences, so it is essential to demonstrate that the relevant source of difference on these tasks is only the number of languages they speak." 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds most psychology and health research in the United States and competition for grants is fierce. An NIH grants officer familiar with Bialystok’s work had been asking the York professor to apply for a grant for a number of years. "But I did not because the process is humungous," she says. "Basically, it’s full-time work for three months to put together the kind of detailed information they want. In addition, you have to deal with all sorts of American regulations requiring inclusivity. For instance, if you are not addressing issues relevant to Hispanic and African-American children, you have to explain why not."

One day, however, Uma Sivaram (BAS ’96) tapped on Bialystok’s door looking for something to do. An organizational wizard headed for a career in banking, Sivaram collected the documents and had the patience to figure out what was required from the National Institutes’ "obstacle course" of a Web site. Bialystok wrote the proposal and sent in the application, which then had to pass through endless layers of adjudication before gaining final approval.

"We are all very pleased about this grant," says Harvey Skinner, dean of York’s Faculty of Health. "This major funding from the National Institutes of Health reflects both the innovation and international recognition of Professor Bialystok’s research."