On the other mano…

On Wednesday, I described some of the benefits of being bilingual, focusing mostly on possible cognitive advantages to growing up with two language. I believe in fairness, but even more than that, I do not think it’s possible to truly understand an issue without exploring it from as many sides as we can. So I set off to find some reasons why being bilingual may become a burden rather than a blessing to some.

There are a few things that muddy the waters:

Definitions of bilingualism. When someone is ‘bilingual’, what does it even mean? Can someone claim the title if they have learned how to count to ten and recite a dialogue about buying fish and vegetables from the market? Or do they need to be able to express themselves easily and perfectly in both languages whenever they want? How about someone in between – better in one language but still reasonable in another?

The fact is, there are various levels and types of bilingualism, and this can create confusion when studying its social or cognitive effects on individuals. Generally, the desired subject is a ‘balanced bilingual’, someone who has equal competence in each language. Even this definition is fraught with difficulty. If someone has limited development in each language, this is still considered ‘balanced’, since both languages are equal. This can skew results on tests of cognitive tasks.

Studies that rely on self-reporting can also end up including individuals that are not, in fact, balanced bilinguals, because it’s easy to misjudge their own linguistic skills. I’ve seen this in action when students self-select their best language for college entrance exams. They claim “English and another language are the same”, but in fact, their writing reveals huge gaps in their knowledge of both grammar and writing conventions in English. Perhaps those gaps exist in their other language and it really is balanced. Or pride may play a role in this incorrect assessment of linguistic skills. Most often, it is probably a simple unawareness of how limited their written English skills are.

Language of Testing. Tests of cognition given in only one language could yield unreliable results if it is not the dominant language of the test subjects. A person may seem to be fluent in both languages in assessments of verbal skills, but conversational competence is not the same as the written, grammatical, or academic competence that may be required by tests of cognitive skills. That person, then, would not perform as well on the tests in the conversational language, leading researchers to believe that bilingualism alone is the source of language or cognitive delays.

Mismatched study groups. In the past, researches have often conflated all study subjects based on language competence alone, leaving children from a wide cross-section of society in the same study group. This introduces far too many variables that may affect performance on cognitive tests. Even if the groups are consistent in terms of language, they may also include subjects with learning disabilities or very high IQs; from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or very wealthy families; culturally accepting of their minority language or trying desperately to assimilate into the majority culture and language.

Controlling for each variable often ends up with a study that may have validity within a very narrow context, but which is very difficult to extrapolate to a wider definition of bilingualism. How well, for example, can we compare results of studies of balanced bilingual middle-class Punjabi/English speakers from London to studies of lower-class rural Quechua/Spanish speakers in Peru?


There are more criticisms of past research than I have listed above, but it should be clear even looking at these main issues that there are many factors to control for and define when studying bilingualism and its effects. In spite of this, there has been enough of a general trend in the research to allow a discussion of the disadvantages, which can be viewed in three main areas: identity, cognition, and education.


  • Growing up bilingual in a society that values this skill will have a positive effect on children learning two languages. However, if one of the languages is stigmatized, or if bilingualism itself is frowned upon, a person may feel shame, or a desire to either hide or forget their knowledge of the non-dominant language.
  • Teenagers already have a hard enough time finding their identity. If they are also dealing with how to navigate through a majority culture coming from a minority family, it may make it more difficult to decide whether or not to accept and embrace the heritage language, or reject it. Even siblings in multilingual families can come to different conclusions as to how they should treat their status and different languages.
  • Language delays might be temporary, but can lead to educational misplacement if the child is underachieving at school for various reasons. Placement in special or remedial classes could cause a student to feel low self-esteem and start identifying himself as below his peers, something that could affect academic achievement for years to come.
  • The values of the home culture and the school or majority culture may come into conflict inside a child who has to navigate both systems, causing confusion and even anger or resentment towards one of the languages.


  • Children who learn two languages at the same time will experience a temporary delay in language development, more so than children who acquire their languages one at a time.
  • The size of the vocabulary of bilinguals –which is necessarily much larger than monolinguals since they have two sets of vocabulary – may lead to slower processing as people search for the right word in the right language.
  • Interference between languages may occur more often in children as they sort out the two linguistic systems, but it may continue into adulthood as well. People may find themselves switching back and forth rapidly, even within the same sentence, and losing a sense of contextual appropriateness. It may require a larger cognitive load to keep the two languages and their uses separate.
  • As with most things in life, use it or lose it. With constant use, a person can maintain their competence in both of their languages. If one language is rarely used, however, access to that language decreases over time.


  • As mentioned before, some children may sound fluent and balanced when speaking both languages, and so might be tested in the non-dominant (or conversational) language before they are ready. This may be one factor in bilingual children scoring lower on standardized tests than monolingual children. Lower scores may unfairly be interpreted as cognitive deficiencies and a child could unnecessarily be placed in remedial classes.
  • The goals and types of bilingual education are just as varied as bilinguals themselves, and each has different effect on students. Is the program trying to subtract languages (to assimilate immigrants) or add languages (majority children learning a foreign language)? Are the immersion programs or after-school heritage programs? Not all types of schools will work for the various types of bilingual individuals or communities.
  • Taking students out of the curriculum for language instruction can cause the student to miss instruction in the subject matter, again leading to underperformance in those subject areas and learning at a lesser or slower rate than their monolingual classmates who are not being pulled out of class.

While the benefits of being bilingual seem to be a bit more generalized and easier to explain, the disadvantages are so completely dependent on context and individual variation that it seems impossible to describe them adequately. Though I’ve included more than enough for a blog post, I still feel it’s a gross simplification of the issue. I haven’t even touched on the politics of bilingualism and bilingual education, which complicates the matter exponentially.

The students in my ESL classes usually hated when I answered one of their questions with, “It depends.” I can understand their frustration: they wanted an answer so they could learn. I couldn’t help it, though. Sometimes, it just depends – on the society or community, on the child, on the family, on the educational system. Speaking for myself and looking at my particular circumstances, abilities, and desires, I feel my life would have been greatly enriched if I’d been given a second language as a child, to grow up with it as intimately as I did with English. While I can’t do anything about the past, I still control my present and future, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stop writing and go curl up with a good Portuguese book and my dictionary.

What language would you learn if you could?

Sources used in this post:

Baker, Colin. 1993. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Multilingual Matters Ltd. Clevedon, UK.

Caldas, Stephen J. “Changing Bilingual Perceptions from Early Adolescence to Early Adulthood: Empirical Evidence from a Mixed-Methods Case Study”. Applied Linguistics. 29/2:290-311.

Martin, Deirdre and Jane Stuart-Smith. 1998. “Exploring Bilingual Children’s Perceptions of Being Bilingual and Biliterate: Implications for Educational Provision”. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 19/2:237-254.

Mindt, Monica Rivera et al. 2008. “Neuropsychological, Cognitive, and Theoretical Considerations for Evaluation of Bilingual Individuals”. Neuropsychology Review. 18:255-268.

13 thoughts on “On the other mano…

  1. Thanks for (another) interesting post! I am really enjoying your blog.
    I consider myself semi-bilingual if there is such a word. My mother tongue is not English but a Germanic/Scandinavian language. I was taught English in school from the age of 11, went on to study English (not just as a language, but literature and social studies as well) and completed a master’s degree a couple of years ago. I now translate and teach English for a living.
    Where I am, most people speak English to a certain degree. I think it’s partly due to heavy exposure from TV and the fact that so few people speak our native language that we need to in order to get by globally. But I wouldn’t call most people here bilingual. There are usually quite an accent and pronunciation issues as well as a limited vocabulary. I usually encourage my students to start thinking in English and they seem to find it hard. I personally think and dream in English half of the time probably because I communicate in and work with the language so much on a daily basis.
    I recently wrote a blog post about writing in a foreign language (in case you’re interested).
    If I could learn another language … I would like to brush up on my French and Latin, but for a completely new one, I’d go with something completely different from any Germanic/Roman languages. Maybe Persian.

    • I’d venture to say that if you are doing translation, there is no ‘semi’ about it – you’re bilingual! :)

      (That post was very interesting, and so is the rest of your blog!)

      Persian is an interesting choice. I also would love to move away from European languages and learn something totally off the wall, like a Xhosa or something! (click languages are cool!)

      • Thank you! Often I think of “true bilingualism” as being brought up with two languages from birth as opposed to having learnt one of them later in life. – Which of course is a tad silly.
        And more thank you. I’m glad you liked the post! :D
        Oh yes, that would be brilliant as well. I personally have a fascination with languages where intonation alone defines a word. Chinese has that feature. Interestingly, I recall being told that a few Norwegian words do too.

      • For one of my first classes in grad school, we had to do a semester-long ‘field work’ project: work with a native speaker of a language we had never studied, elicit vocabulary, then work out that language’s phonological system (without consulting outside research – we had to work it all out on our own.) I worked with a man from Uganda. One of the most exciting things about that project was discovering that Luganda is a tonal language. That was a proud moment, and pretty damn cool. :)

      • It must have been cool! Really difficult, but so incredibly interesting. I only had a bit of linguistics as part of my English phonetics/grammar courses, but I’ve always been really fascinated.

  2. Since you were a linguist, I was very tempted to ask you what “conflated” means. But I sucked it up and used google. You’re very right I think about the self assessment. I had a friend that considered himself bilingual and equally competent in both. Spanish was actually his first language, but he began learning English very early. During his fifth year in the US, he took a Job translating and realized just how poor his spanish skills had become after five years without use. I also once listened to a new translator during a sermon. The pastor was describing how Jesus walked across the steep rocky waves of the sea out to his disciples. The translator was apparently getting overwhelmed because what he decided to translate was that Jesus got a taxi and went to see some friends standing in the rain. :)

    • I think that’s one of my new favorite translations :) Now I’m never not going to imagine that whenever someone references Jesus walking on water.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. When I still lived at home I remember being annoyed with all the people, who moved abroad and came back few years later speaking with foreign accents and struggling to find words in Lithuanian. I always thought they’re trying to be somebody else… 10 years of living in London and I find myself wishing my mum spoke English when she calls me. :) I wouldn’t say I struggle, but it’s definitely easier for me to speak in English now. Even when I go back for holiday and the language ability comes back fully, I still think in English. Strange.

    Also, just because you’re equally fluent in both languages, it doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at translating them. To quickly and accurately translate from one language to another, require special abilities beyond simple language skills. I say this as somebody who asked what the word means usually can’t find the right word, even though I know it perfectly well.

    And finally, to answer your question, I really want to learn Latin. Even though, there’s no much use for it in our modern day society.

    • I’m having the strange feeling that I’ve already responded to your comment, and yet it’s not here. I don’t know what happened! It may be possible I started a response but never finished it.

      At any rate, I apologize for such a long delay in replying to your comment!

      When I came back to the States after 5 years abroad, I apparently spoke English with an accent. I was completely unaware of it, and it was probably just as much due to working with so many British, Australian, and South African teachers as it did with having to use a different language for my daily life. It did go away, but there are still odd little speech patterns or phrases that have stuck. It’s almost impossible to think that your native language could be affected that much, but as you said…after a long enough time, you become comfortable enough with a second language that it starts influencing the first!

      And you’re right – translating is a skill that goes beyond just knowing the two languages.

      Thanks for the comment and again, I’m sorry it took me this long to realize that I hadn’t responded to you! I didn’t mean to leave you hanging :)

  4. Ahm, first of all, I really loved your blog and the way you write. Even when you talk about Linguistic (which is a scary subject for my classmates in college), maybe because you make it easier than our teacher. My mother tongue is Portuguese, and since I’m from Brazil there’re many differences from European Portuguese. And it’s wonderful discovering these differences, the false cognates, the hilarious misunderstandings… Sorry if my English is terrible, I’m on my way to refine it. In college, we’re being prepared to be English teachers, but I’m not sure if I want this. I think it takes vocation and passion to be a great teacher. And a good grammar sense.. :D

    I’ll stop by here, I learn a lot. You’re great! Thanks
    P.S: I really like French, German and Norwegian. And English, of course.

    • Welcome, Elena, and thank you so much for your comment! First let me tell you there’s no need to apologize for your English. It’s very good. And I personally wouldn’t be bothered even if it wasn’t. I think it takes courage to write in a second language (especially in ‘public’) as you’re still learning or refining it. I know I would have trouble getting up the nerve to post a comment in Portuguese, and even more so now than a few years ago since I am forgetting so much!

      I’m glad you can learn something about language and linguistics here because that’s really one of the main reasons I started this blog. I enjoy reading other linguistic blogs but they are definitely written for others who have studied linguistics. I wanted to write for people who haven’t studied it (or only a little) to maybe make it a little less intimidating for people and present issues in a more accessible way.

      Norwegian is one of the languages I would love to learn one day! Oh, if only I could win the lottery so I could just be a perpetual student! :)

      • Yeah, we all who love languages wish we could be eternal students! Figure out, years only spending time with such important thing, and at the same time something we love… I’m just begining and wish college could last much more than four years.
        Thank you so much for your words, be sure it helps me to keep on studying harder, so I may become someone people admire someday, just like you.
        Vida longa ao seu blog!

  5. Pingback: Random language, random words, random thoughts « hydrargyrium

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