Is the conventional wisdom on bilingualism wrong?; By w:User:LinguistAtLarge (English-language Wikipedia) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So says an article in The American Conservative, as linked to by the National Review, “California’s Bilingual Gamble,” by Jason Richwine.

Specifically, the conventional wisdom is the claim that being bilingual makes one smarter.  Specifically,

For decades, many psychologists did believe that speaking two languages improves “executive function,” meaning cognitive skills associated with focus, memory, and reasoning. The theory was that since bilinguals must mentally inhibit one language while speaking the other, they develop keen focus and control over cognitive tasks. But the link between executive function and bilingualism is one of many findings that have recently fallen victim to the “replication crisis.” In a profession that rewards novelty, academics and the journals that publish them often take even the slightest hint of a positive finding and run with it, downplaying or ignoring null results. Since researchers have become increasingly interested in large-scale replications in recent years, they have had trouble verifying some of the most well-known results in social psychology.

The alleged link between executive function and bilingualism is no exception. Writing in the academic journal Cortex in 2016, psychologist Kenneth Paap recalled how he and his colleagues initially “had strong expectations that we would replicate a strong advantage” for bilinguals on executive tasks. But they couldn’t. “Three studies, three additional tasks, and 273 participants later we reconsidered the hypothesis and … what changed our mind was simply the weight of the evidence.” Many psychologists are no longer convinced that bilingualism improves executive function at all. Given the state of the evidence, there is no clear case for encouraging bilingualism in the U.S. on cognitive grounds alone.

If bilingualism doesn’t make one smarter, what about the rationale that it is important to be bilingual because, well, the rest of the world is?

My point of view has generally been that it’s important to know how to read and write well in one’s native tongue, and in the International Lingua Franca.  It just so happens that we native English-speakers are fortunate in that these two languages are one and the same, which means that learning a second language is perfectly fine, but should not be a top priority and should be balanced with other goals, such as math, history, civics, science, and so on.

Richwine’s view is that all the touted benefits of bilingualism, especially when it comes to preserving native languages of immigrants, aren’t strong enough to counter the disadvantages that accompany it.

Having 40 million Spanish-speakers—geographically concentrated in the Southwest, sharing Latin American roots, and easily linked by modern communication and proximity to their ancestral countries—risks a cultural bifurcation between native English and Spanish speakers in the U.S.

He cites two different popular cultures — television, entertainers — and two different political dialogs, as politicians say one thing in Spanish and another in English.  But more importantly, he says,

Outside the national spotlight, linguistic divisions have subtle but important effects on community life. Researchers have found that “social capital”—meaning the bonds of trust and reciprocity that people forge within their communities—plays a crucial role in life satisfaction. Political scientist Robert Putnam explains: “Where levels of social capital are higher, children grow up healthier, safer, and better educated; people live longer, happier lives; and democracy and the economy work better.”

Linguistic diversity reduces social capital. Two Danish academics, Cong Wang and Bodo Steiner, published a 2015 paper in Economic Record showing that more national languages correlate with lower levels of social capital across a sample of 68 nations. Specifically, multilingualism leads to “lower levels of social trust, fewer memberships in social organizations, and deteriorated social norms and structures.” These relationships survived the authors’ rigorous tests for causality.

Richwine also worries that the prior pattern of immigrants adopting English and abandoning bilingualism, will not be replicated with the new generations.  For a number of reasons, a significant portion of even third-generation immigrants maintain Spanish as the language in which they consume popular culture.  What’s more, the prior integration of immigrants in the early 20th century was aided by the pause in immigration from the 20s to the 60s.

I’ll say this:  he seems credible to me.  Certainly the bit that claims that bilingualism makes one smarter, haven’t actually been replicated — that sounds a bit like the claims that listening to Mozart will make your baby smarter.  (We still have the videotape, but — honestly — it was a gift, and it did serve a purpose as semi-entertaining background music for the baby while I was folding laundry.)

But as to it contributing to a cultural divide?  Well, is the Hispanic community more culturally removed from the middle-class white “Anglo” community than is the case for inner-city blacks, who share the same language?


To clarify, we’re talking about a couple things when I say “bilingualism”:  the first is programs by schools which teach English to new arrivals comparatively slowly, e.g., just as one class period while they continue to study other subjects in their native language, then continue to teach in that native language, with the intent of preserving those skills and culture, for a significant portion of class time.  The second, which the article under discussion doesn’t address specifically, are the various special programs at schools which aim to teach native students a second language through intensive immersion, which is ironically predicated on the opposite idea, that kids can do just fine if immersed in a second language, without harm to their learning of other school subjects.  And one element Richwine doesn’t address is the cost of either of these sorts of programs, both in the dollars and cents of school spending, and in the time-cost, that is, that time spent studying languages is time that could have been spent increasing proficiency in other subjects — which, tangentially, means that the foreign language push necessarily butts up the simultaneous coding education push that’s the latest trend in schools.


Image:; By w:User:LinguistAtLarge (English-language Wikipedia) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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