The benefits of learning in more than one language

There are a range of research studies identifying the potential benefits of operating in two or more languages. These have been reviewed and summarised in a systematic review by Adesope et al (2010).

Bear in mind that all findings need to be taken in the context of the EAL learners with whom you are working. Contextual factors such as social and emotional well-being and the quality of instruction in the classroom will affect learners’ capacity to develop these benefits.

  1. EAL learners develop greater attentional control – they are better able to focus their attention when engaged in language-related non-verbal tasks than their monolingual peers. It is thought that this is because they have to concentrate on consciously selecting their additional language to work in.
  2. EAL learners develop greater metalinguistic awareness – this meant that they have a detailed understanding of how language works because they are operating in more than one language. Reflection on how the languages they use are different gives them insight into the workings of grammar and syntax. For example, Cameron and Besser (2004) found that advanced EAL learners writing fiction for standardised assessment tasks in the UK aged 11 were better able to use metaphor and other parts of speech in their compositions than monolingual pupils. 
  3. EAL learners have enhanced skills in creative and abstract thinking – studies have shown that EAL learners perform better than their monolingual peers in creative and divergent thinking and in abstract and symbolic reasoning. It is thought that EAL learners’ capacity for greater creativity may be as a result of switching between two languages and two different perspectives. Their superior abstract reasoning skills may derive from having a greater vocabulary across two or more languages that allows them to see relationships (in mathematics for example)
  4. EAL learners have enhanced skills at problem solving – it is thought that because EAL learners are thinking across two or more languages that they have greater flexibility of thinking when solving problems.

For a fuller discussion of these advantages, and of limiting factors on these advantages, see:

Adesope,O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive Correlates of Bilingualism , Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 207 – 245

See also CILT (2006) Positively Plurilingual: The contribution of community languages to UK education and society,  London: CLIT

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