Language and Cognitive Aspects of Child Bilingualism

Research Observations and Classroom Applications

by Maria Andreou (Author)
©2021 Monographs 192 Pages
Series: Inquiries in Language Learning, Volume 28


This book investigates how bilingualism affects children’s language, cognitive and narrative abilities. The data sample derives from 209 8-12 years old bilingual children, in three different targeted languages (Greek-English, Greek-German, Greek-Albanian) along with 100 monolingual Greek children. The children completed baseline and experimental tasks measuring their vocabulary, grammar, cognitive skills, and narrative production abilities. The outcome of this work reveals that learning to read and write in two languages is beneficial for the development of language and cognitive skills. A strong case can be made to the growing bilingual communities in Germany and beyond to provide literacy training in both languages within mainstream schools, afternoon classes outside of the curriculum or in community schools.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Vorwort
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Theoretical background
  • 2.1 Some Background Information on Child Bilingualism
  • 2.2 External Factors
  • 2.2.1 Biliteracy
  • 2.2.2 Educational Setting
  • 2.3 Different Types of Bilingualism: Age of Onset
  • 2.4 Socioeconomic Status
  • 2.5 Different Types of Bilingualism: Input
  • 2.6 Language Dominance in the Bilingual Child
  • 2.7 Bilingualism and Vocabulary Skills
  • 2.8 Bilingualism and Cognition
  • 2.9 Bilingualism and Narrative Skills
  • 3 Participants’ Profile (Age, Vocabulary Capacity and Background Information)
  • 3.1 Preliminary Remarks
  • 3.2 Educational Setting
  • 3.3 Questionnaire Factors
  • 3.4 Profile of Language Abilities
  • 3.4.1 Nonverbal Intelligence
  • 3.4.2 Vocabulary Scores
  • 3.4.3 Methods for Assessing Dominance through Language Proficiency Scores
  • 3.4.4 Sentence Repetition Task
  • 3.4.5 Lexical Decision Task
  • 4 Cognition and Dominance: Educational Setting and Biliteracy Effects
  • 4.1 Cognitive Tasks
  • 4.2 Results: Balance with 6 Different Ways
  • 4.3 Results: Balance Language Proficiency (Between Group Comparisons)
  • 4.4 The Variables for a Balanced Bilingual
  • 4.5 The Biliteracy Variable
  • 5 Narration Task: Description and Coding
  • 5.1 Creation of the Four Scenarios
  • 5.2 Procedure
  • 5.2.1 Instructions
  • 5.2.2 Oral Retelling
  • 6 Narratives: Macrostructure vs. Microstructure Measures
  • 6.1 Objectives
  • 6.2 Macrostructure Measures
  • 6.3 Microstructure Measures
  • 6.4 Results
  • 6.4.1 Microstructure: Age Group 8–10 Yrs Old
  • 6.4.1 Macrostructure: Age Group 8–10 Yrs Old
  • 6.4.2 Microstructure: Age Group 10–12 Yrs Old
  • 6.4.3 Macrostructure: Age Group 10–12 Yrs Old
  • 6.4.4 The Age Effects: Micro- and Macrostructure Differences in 8–10 vs. 10–12
  • 6.4.5 Summary
  • 6.4.6 Oral Retellings, Language Abilities Tasks, Cognitive Tasks and Background Measures
  • 6.4.7 Microstructure Telling: Age Group 8–10 Yrs Old
  • 6.4.8 Macrostructure Telling: Age Group 8–10 Yrs Old
  • 6.4.9 The Mode Effect (Retelling vs. Telling): Microstructure Differences
  • 6.4.10 Oral Telling, Language Abilities Tasks, Cognitive Tasks and Background Measures
  • 6.4.11 Microstructure: Age Group 10–12 Yrs Old: Written Retellings
  • 6.4.12 Macrostructure: Age Group 10–12 Yrs Old Written Retelling
  • 6.4.13 The Effect of Mode (Retelling vs. Written Retelling): Microstructure Differences
  • 6.4.14 Written Retellings, Language Abilities Tasks, Cognitive Tasks and Background Measures
  • 6.5 Conclusions
  • 7 Practical Applications of Narratives in Language Instruction
  • 8 Discussion
  • References

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1 Introduction

The aim of this research is to investigate the effects of bilingualism on verbal and nonverbal cognition, specifically how bilingualism affects language, cognitive and narrative abilities in bilingual children. Child bilingualism refers to children who are equally fluent speakers in two languages, and is a phenomenon that today applies to most countries of the world and crosscuts all social classes. Bilingual children, long considered a special group of language users as monolinguals were assumed to be the norm, have in recent years become the focus of research in cognitive psychology, linguistics and cognitive neuroscience.

A wealth of studies has investigated how the experience of being bilingual shapes our language and cognitive abilities and the way we produce narratives. In terms of their language abilities, bilingual children seem to have smaller vocabularies compared to their monolingual peers (see, for instance, Bialystok 2010), whereas their grammatical abilities may differ from those of monolingual children depending on the grammatical structure tested (Marinis and Chondrogianni 2010). In terms of their cognitive abilities, there is conflicting evidence about whether or not bilingualism leads to advantages in Executive Functions, i.e., the cognitive processes responsible for goal-oriented behavior, the capacity to think ahead, suppress impulses, and temporarily hold information (Bialystok 2011; Morales, Calvo and Bialystok 2013; Paap, Johnson and Sawi 2015; Valian 2015). Many studies have shown that systematic use of the two languages leads to a bilingual advantage in cognitive control (Adesope, Lavin, Thompson and Ungerleider 2010), but not all studies have found this bilingual advantage (see, for instance, Namazi and Thordardottir 2010). In terms of narrative production by bilinguals, a growing body of research has shown that narrative development is a lengthy process which continues well into school years and is closely related to discourse pragmatic development (Berman 2004). It seems that an important point in the use of narratives and their analyses are less biased against bilingual children than normed-referenced grammar assessment tools (Paradis, Genesee and Crago 2011).

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One common denominator for studies on bilinguals is the individual variability in the participants’ performance on language, cognitive abilities, and narrative production. A key source of individual variability relates to literacy and to educational setting (biliterate vs. monoliterate) which comprise the external factors on child bilingualism (Paradis 2008). Some but not all bilingual children are also biliterate,1 and this may affect their performance in tasks measuring language, cognitive abilities, and narrative production. Also, a key source of individual variability relates to Age of Onset (AoO) which comprises an internal factor. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the contribution of external factors (i.e., biliteracy, socioeconomic conditions, etc.) and internal factors (such as Age at the Time of Testing (ATT), etc.) on language, cognitive abilities, and narrative production.

Research on biliteracy is limited compared to research on bilingualism. A small body of studies has revealed that biliterate bilinguals outperform monoliterate bilinguals and monolinguals in phonological awareness tasks and reading fluency measures (e.g., Leikin, Swartz and Share 2010; Swartz, Leikin and Share 2005). This is unsurprising because these tasks have been shown to be good predictors of reading abilities in monolingual and bilingual children (Ehri, Nunes, Willows, Schuster, Yaghoub and Shanahan 2001). However, it is unclear whether biliteracy or a balanced in terms of literacy educational system affect higher level language abilities, like grammatical abilities, and whether biliterate bilingual children have better vocabulary and grammatical abilities than monoliterate bilingual children in the two languages that they speak. With respect to socioeconomic factors, several studies have shown that the wellbeing of the family (SES) is a learning environment that affects the quantity and quality of the input which mainly has an impact on the pace of early acquisition and skill in later language use. However, other studies report that it is not the socioeconomic factor per se but a stimulating home environment rich in parental communicative interactions and learning experiences (i.e., mother-child interaction) which leads to a creation of a better input ( Hoff and Tian 2005).

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In terms of their cognitive abilities and their relation to the external factors, previous studies have shown that biliterate bilingual children have higher fluid intelligence than monoliterate bilingual and monolingual children (Leikin, Swartz and Share 2010). However, it is unclear whether biliteracy also affects executive functions and cognitive control. The only study so far that has provided some evidence that biliteracy may lead to a cognitive advantage in executive functions has investigated the effects of bilingual education in executive functions (see Andreou, Marinis, Bongartz and Tsimpli under review). This study investigates executive functions in bilingual children attending bilingual educational contexts compared to bilingual children attending monolingual educational contexts and concludes that the former group has higher levels of updating skills. Updating is the capacity to monitor information entering working memory and replacing the memory representations no longer needed with those relevant to the task (Morris and Jones 1990). This provides evidence that biliteracy skills may confer an advantage in executive functions involving updating. In terms of their cognitive abilities and their relation with the internal factors, a large body of studies (e.g., Bradley and Corwyn 2002) sheds light on the role of the SES in cognitive skills, as their results with regard to the fluid intelligence present a difference of approximately one standard deviation between high and low SES groups. A further objective of our study is to see if external and internal factors can predict the cognitive abilities of bilingual children.

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The narrative production consists of connected speech, which involves the entire range of linguistic as well as cognitive functions. More specifically, narrative production has been acknowledged as an effective technique to tap into structural grammatical aspects of children’s language performance, as well as into extra-linguistic processes which draw more broadly on children’s cognitive skills, world knowledge and social cognition. Children’s narrations consist of two distinct areas of discourse: microstructure and macrostructure (Liles et al. 1995). The microstructure of a narrative can be defined as linguistic structure at the lexical and syntactic level and it is used to evaluate the productivity and complexity of children’s language by calculating form and content of linguistic devices both sententially and intersententially (Halliday and Hasan 1976; Hughes, McGillivray and Schmidek 1997). On the other hand, the macrostructure of a narrative refers to its global hierarchical organization and coherence that transcends the level of the individual utterance. More specifically, macrostructure consists of story-plot elements (setting, problem, resolution) in which events are depicted (e.g., Liles et al. 1995; McCabe and Peterson 1984; McCabe and Rollins 1994). An additional objective of this research is, thus, to investigate if the external and the internal factors can predict narrative production of bilingual children along with monolingual controls. Also, a comparison between micro- and macrostructure will enable us to see if the two different domains work united or independently of one another. To understand the processes involved in speaking vs. writing of narrative production, our study will include both a speaking and a writing task.

A further significant point is to investigate the complex interaction between bilingualism and language abilities, cognitive abilities, and narrative production and to address the contribution of each of these factors to the others as outcome measures. This is a new approach, since up to this day there are very few studies which attempt to correlate the three domains (see, for instance, Marian and Kaushanskaya 2004).

To summarize, the overarching aim of this research is to investigate the effects of bilingualism on language, cognition and narrative production. The project has five objectives: 1) to observe if external and internal factors can predict the vocabulary and grammatical abilities of bilingual children and to see if there are differences between bilingual and monolingual children on vocabulary and grammatical abilities; 2) to see if external and internal factors can predict the cognitive abilities of bilingual children; 3) to investigate if the external or internal factors can predict narrative production of bilingual children and to see if bilingual and monolingual children demonstrate differences with respect to their narrative production; 4) to see which of the two ways measuring dominance (i.e., the distance between the two vocabularies or the distance between the external factors in the two languages) better explains language, cognitive and narrative performance; and 5) to investigate the complex interaction between bilingualism and language abilities, cognitive abilities, and narrative production, respectively.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 192 pp., 4 fig. col., 33 fig. b/w, 32 tables.

Biographical notes

Maria Andreou (Author)

Maria Andreou is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cologne, participating in the SFB Project 1252 "Prominence in Language". Her scientific interests include bilingualism and multilingualism, literacy, language and cognitive abilities in typical development and in (developmental and acquired) language disorders and narrative development.


Title: Language and Cognitive Aspects of Child Bilingualism