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Why bilingualism makes a difference. Prof. Dr. Claudia Maria Riehl University of Cologne, Germany. ZSM: Center for Language Diversity and Multilingualism. Structure of the talk. Insights from psycholinguistics Language in the brain: preliminaries

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why bilingualism makes a difference

Why bilingualism makes a difference

Prof. Dr. Claudia Maria Riehl

University of Cologne, Germany

ZSM: Center for Language Diversity and Multilingualism

structure of the talk
Structure of the talk
  • Insights from psycholinguistics
  • Language in the brain: preliminaries
  • The representation of knowledge in the brain
  • Evidence from neurolinguistics
  • Cognitive advantages of bilinguals
  • Impact on language policy and language learning
some general observations
Some general observations
  • Sometimes when you think of a word in a foreign language, it comes into your mind in another foreign language
  • Bilingual people often switch between languages unintentionally:

Des war (-) ä Berezawenn sie nass ist un (-) Birkin(-) un dann fault sie.

That was (-) bereza if it gets wet and (-) birch (-) and then it is going to rot.

the stroop test
The Stroop Test












the language network
The language network

The Stroop Test and other psycholinguistic experiments reveal:

  • The languages in our brain are interconnected
  • When one language is active, the other(s) cannot be completely switched off

Language in the brain:

some preliminaries

language modules in the brain
Language modules in the brain





metalinguistic knowledge


verbal communication system


sylvian Fissur

Broca- Area

Wernicke- Area


The neurologists Paul Pierre Broca (1824-1880) & Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) found that injuries in certain regions of the left half of the brain affected the language abilities of their patients

neurolinguistic processing
Neurolinguistic processing
  • The basic structure is created in Wernicke's area and is encoded in Broca's area
  • the information is sent to the adjacent motor area
  • the motor area activates the instruments of articulation
types of knowledge representation
Types of knowledge representation

Implicit competence

  • automatic processes are part of the so-called implicit (or procedural) competence
  • acquired incidentally
  • stored implicitly (not accessible by consciousness)
  • used automatically (without conscious control)

Explicit knowledge

  • explicit (declarative) knowledge
  • individuals are aware of it
  • it can be verbalized
  • There are two different systems and different paths of activation
  • Explicit knowledge requires higher brain activity

Application on linguistic knowledge:

  • The first language is acquired implicitly during infancy
  • Semantic knowledge and metalinguistic knowledge are acquired explicitly
the representation of languages in the brain
The representation of languages in the brain
  • Our brain does not provide different areas for different languages
  • Less fluently spoken languages require more cerebral activities in language production than well mastered languages
  • early bilingual subjects have more overlapping substrate in Broca's area
  • early bilinguals recruit less neural substrate when they produce in L3 than late bilinguals
  • in late bilinguals the activation produced by each of the three languages is more variable

early bilinguals build up a network in the language area sufficiently adaptable to integrate later languages

Wattendorf, E. (2001), Different languages activate different subfields in Broca's area. Neuroimage 13: 624

  • Age of acquisition is a critical determinant of cerebral organization of language processing in bilinguals


  • The representation of languages in Broca's area that are developed early in life are not subsequently modified
  • That would necessitate the utilization of adjacent areas for L2 (when learned as an adult)
plasticity of the brain mechelli et al
Plasticity of the brain (Mechelli et al.)
  • Hypothesis: Structure of the brain may be altered by experience of acquisition of L2
  • Voxel-based morphometry test:
  • 25 monolinguals (little or no exposure to a second language)
  • 25 early bilinguals (exposed to L2 before the age of 5)
  • 33 late bilinguals (exposed to L2 between age 10-15 and practiced it for at least 5 years)
  • The learning of a second language leads to a greater density of grey matter in the left inferior parietal cortex
  • The density of the grey matter increases with second-language proficiency but decreases as the age of acquisition increases

Mechelli, A.. et al. (2004), Structural plasticity in the brain. Nature 431, 757.

the role of proficiency
The role of proficiency
  • Language proficiency has a larger effect than age on the cerebral representation of semantic processing in L2 (Wartenburger et al. 2003)
  • Finding appears to be compatible with the hypothesis of a difference between the mechanisms responsible for the processing of grammatical and semantic knowledge

 evidence for different types of knowledge (explicit vs. implicit)

the impact of typological distance of languages
The impact of typological distance of languages
  • The overlapping of languages acquired early in life is independent of the typological distance of the languages involved
  • There is no significant difference between language pairs such as Italian-English / Catalan-Spanish (Perani et al. 1998) and English-Mandarin (Chee et al. 2001) / Japanese-English (Hasegawa et al. 2002)
cognitive advantages
Cognitive advantages
  • Theory of mind
  • Control of attention
  • Strategy use
  • Creativity
theory of mind
Theory of mind
  • Three-year-old children assume that everybody has the same knowledge as themselves
  • Bilingual children are capable of considering the possibility that someone could have different beliefs
  • bilingualism leads to increased sensitivity to the knowledge of other people
control of attention bialystok
Control of attention (Bialystok):

Test: Bilingual and monolingual children had to judge the correctness of sentences:

Example 1: Apples grow on trees

Example 2: Apples on treesgrow

Example 3: Apples on noses grow

result of the test
Result of the test

Bilingual children recognise ungrammatical forms more frequentely than monolinguals


  • they do not only concentrate on the content of the message, but also on its form
  • they are better able to define word boundaries and understand grammatical rules

Bilinguals have a higher metalinguistic awareness

Bialystok, E. (2001): Bilingualism in Development. Cambridge: CUP

strategy use
Strategy use
  • Bilinguals generally use manual gestures more than monolinguals in order to access words more sufficiently
  • Bilinguals have extensive experience of choosing languages for the pragmatic context (person, topic etc.)
  • They are sensitive to other people's communicative needs
  • Different languages will often feature different grammatical structures
  • increased cognitive flexibility that frees the thought processes from potential linguistic constraints
  • sensitivity to concepts that are not emphasised in the first language
  • Lack of complete semantic correspondence stimulates the capacity for generating numerous and unusual associations
  • Historiometric methods:
    • Golden Ages of creativity activity seem supportive of a polyglot rather than a linguistically homogenous civilization
    • A significant proportion of notable creators were first or second generation immigrants
  • Psychometric method:
    • Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking

Simonton, D.K. (2008): Bilingualism and Creativity. In: J. Altarriba/R.R. Heredia (eds.), An Introduction to Bilingualism. N.Y./London: Erlbaum, 147ff.

  • In some tests bilinguals scored higher both on verbal originality and on figural originality
  • There is a correlation between the level of creativity and proficiency in a second language
impact on language and education policy
Impact on language and education policy
  • A second language should be acquired as early as possible
  • Bilingual families should be encouraged to raise their children bilingually
  • Networks (between families, parents and teachers etc.) should be provided
  • Monolingual families should be advised to enable their children to learn a L2 as early in life as possible
impact on language learning
Impact on language learning
  • Language learning is a complex phenomenon (involving different modules and types of knowledge)

 Efficient language training is required to become fluent in a second language

  • Bilingual programmes (with language immersion) are the most effective way to gain this proficiency
  • Further support by
    • Creative methods of teaching
    • Media
    • Use of natural ressources



Prof. Dr. Claudia M. Riehl

Zentrum Sprachenvielfalt und Mehrsprachigkeit

Universität zu Köln


D-50923 KÖLN, Germany

Email: claudia.riehl@uni-koeln.de