Are Bilinguals Smarter?

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on April 5, 2012

Well, actually the title of the article in the New York Times is a bit less equivocal. Its title begins with a conclusion, to wit: "Why Bilinguals Are Smarter". And it then goes on to assert that, "Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter."

And in case you don't get the point of the article it comes with an illustration of a man contemplating an apple and saying in one dialogue box, "apple", with another in his head showing him thinking la manzana. Got it now? Thinking in Spanish and saying it in English while learning "Why Bilinguals Are Smarter" is the point.

Others immediately endorsed the conclusion: "Of course, we already knew this, those of us who are bilingual: We are smarter than other people. Still, it was nice to have an article in the New York Times Sunday Review confirm it."

Well, that settles it, at least in some quarters, but what is the evidence? The article notes that, "Researchers, educators, and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child's academic and intellectual development." And, "They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual's brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other."

But wait, there's more: bilingualism is a "blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles."

This muscular metaphor conjures a modern version of the old Charles Atlas body building ads in which the average modern single-language American is being confronted by a muscular and intellectually superior Spanish-speaking bilingual immigrant.

But exactly how are bilinguals "smarter" according to the article? Do they have higher IQs? No. Do they get better grades? No. Are they more likely to excel at art, medicine, science, or even life more generally? No. No evidence on any of these matters is offered.

What bilinguals do apparently excel at is, "a heightened ability to monitor the environment." If this is true, bilingual paranoids must really be observant.

More seriously, the author quotes one authority as saying, "Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language." The article elicits support for its premise by noting a study that compared pre-verbal monolinguals and bilinguals and showed, "that 7-month-old infants, raised with 2 languages from birth, display improved cognitive control abilities compared with matched monolinguals."

Notice anything? Well, for one thing, pre-verbal seven-month-old infants are neither monolingual nor bilingual, they are non-lingual. What the study found was that:

Whereas both monolinguals and bilinguals learned to respond to a speech or visual cue to anticipate a reward on one side of a screen, only bilinguals succeeded in redirecting their anticipatory looks when the cue began signaling the reward on the opposite side. Bilingual infants rapidly suppressed their looks to the first location and learned the new response.

Yes, that's it. "Bilingual" infants are better able to anticipate from what side of a screen their rewards might come from. Does this make them "smarter"? Maybe, but more likely maybe not. Perhaps they are more anxious and busy scanning for threats as well as rewards? Perhaps they are more needy and more motivated to find what they want. Perhaps they are more competitive or aggressive.

You get the point.

Actually, had the author of this article done even minimal homework, he would have discovered in the Times' archives that Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and the author of "Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition" and one of whose studies he quotes, has said flatly bilingualism "doesn't make kids smarter."


Before I believe that bilinguals are smarter I'll wait to see some real evidence in their overrepresentation in some category of real achievement.

In the meantime, I'll continue to believe, based on much evidence, that learning English is, for new immigrants, critically important for them becoming a real and successful part of the American national community.

Next: American Bilingualism and Globalization