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Cognitive Advantages of Second Language Immersion Education

The development of enhanced cognitive skills in immersion education

Post written by François Grosjean.

The linguistic and educational success of second language immersion education is now well established (see here). What has been less clear until recently was whether children who attend immersion programs show the same kind of advantages in cognitive skills, such as metalinguistic awareness and executive control, as do children who are early bilinguals. Metalinguistic awareness is our explicit knowledge of different aspects of language (sounds, words, syntax, and so on) and, when needed, our capacity to talk about these properties. It is crucial in the development of literacy, for example. As for executive control (also known as executive function), it is a set of complex cognitive processes that include attention, inhibition, monitoring, selection, planning, and so on. Inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility are three core aspects of executive control.

In a recent study, York University professor Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues Kathleen F. Peets and Sylvain Moreno studied the development of metalinguistic awareness in children becoming bilingual in an immersion education program. They gave different tasks to second and fifth grade English-speaking children in a French immersion program and compared their results with those of children in a regular English program. The tasks involved morphological awareness (adding correct morphological forms to nonsense words), syntactic awareness (making grammaticality judgments), and verbal fluency (generating words that belong to a semantic category or that begin with an initial letter). These three tasks differed in their need for executive control, from the least in the first task to the most in the third task.

The researchers found that the metalinguistic advantages reported in studies of early bilinguals emerged gradually in these immersion children, with tasks requiring less executive control giving positive results sooner than tasks requiring more executive control. Thus all immersion children outperformed their monolingual counterparts in the morphological awareness tasks, even after two years of immersion, and fifth grade immersion program children were more accurate in the syntactic awareness tasks than their monolingual counterparts. The verbal fluency tasks began as a problem for the younger children in the immersion program (literacy instruction in English only starts in third grade) but the older children had regained the ground and performed equivalently to monolingual children. The authors concluded that the advantages previously reported for early bilingual children could already be detected in children learning another language in an immersion program.

What about the advantages in executive control as such that children brought up bilingually show systematically over their monolingual counterparts? Do immersion children also show these advantages? Belgian scientists Anne-Catherine Nicolay and Martine Poncelet examined this. They tested third grade French-speaking children in an English immersion program and compared them to a similar group following a monolingual curriculum. They assessed attentional and executive skills by means of six different tasks such as alerting, auditory selective attention, divided attention, mental flexibility, and so on.

The results they found showed that in four of the six tasks, the immersion children did better than their monolingual counterparts. This is quite remarkable as the children had only had three years of immersion education which involves less intensive exposure to a second language than in early bilingualism. And yet, the immersion experience had already produced some of the cognitive benefits associated with early bilingualism.

The one negative finding that surprised the researchers (i.e. no difference between the two groups) concerned interference inhibition. In the task they used, the flanker task, children were presented with a central arrow pointing to the left or to the right, and flanker arrows above or below pointing in the same direction or in the opposite direction (in this latter case, the flanker arrows create an interference that has to be inhibited in order to answer correctly). Children had to concentrate on the central arrow and press a left button when the central arrow pointed to the left and a right button for the arrow pointing to the right. The authors explained the lack of a difference between the two groups by the fact that young emerging bilinguals in immersion programs (third grade children here) have not yet had much practice at inhibiting interference since they devote less time to second language production in a classroom situation than in real life.

Do children who have had further experience of immersion education show better control of interference inhibition? The answer comes from a paper by Ellen Bialystok and Raluca Barac who also used a flanker task but this time in two different studies with immersion children. In the first, they tested second and third graders who attended school in Hebrew, and in the second, they tested second and fifth graders in a French immersion program. In both studies they found that executive control performance improved with increased experience in a bilingual education environment. Basically, the length of time spent in an immersion program—some of their children had had two more years of immersion than in the Belgian study—determines the extent to which executive control is affected.

So the news is excellent for all those who are putting time and energy in immersion education—teachers and staff, parents and, of course, children. As Ellen Bialystok, Kathleen F. Peets and Sylvain Moreno state so nicely: "The road to bilingualism is incremental, and so are the accrued advantages".

Photo of school children from Shutterstock.


Ellen Bialystok & Raluca Barac (2012). Emerging bilingualism: Dissociating advantages for metalinguistic awareness and executive control. Cognition, 122, 67-73.

Ellen Bialystok, Kathleen F. Peets & Sylvian Moreno (2012). Producing bilinguals through immersion education: Development of metalinguistic awareness. Applied Psycholinguistics, 2012, 1-15, doi:10.1017/S0142716412000288

Anne-Catherine Nicolay & Martine Poncelet (2013). Cognitive advantage in children enrolled in second-language immersion elementary school program for three years. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16 (3), 597-607, doi:10.1017/S1366728912000375

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