Being Bilingual Changes Children’s Perception

I recently read a fascinating article called How bilingualism affects children’s beliefs, which details some findings from researchers in developmental psychology at Concordia University in Montreal.

The idea behind the experiment is to see what qualities kids see as innate. Is the language that a person speaks innate, or is it learned? Is the sound that an animal makes innate, or is it learned?


The implications could be quite profound. I quote the final four paragraphs here:

> “Both monolinguals and second language learners showed some errors in their thinking, but each group made different kinds of mistakes. Monolinguals were more likely to think that everything is innate, while bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned,” says Byers-Heinlein.

> “Children’s systematic errors are really interesting to psychologists, because they help us understand the process of development. Our results provide a striking demonstration that everyday experience in one domain — language learning — can alter children’s beliefs about a wide range of domains, reducing children’s essentialist biases.”

> The study has important social implications because adults who hold stronger essentialist beliefs are more likely to endorse stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes.

> “Our finding that bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs raises the possibility that early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity,” says Byers-Heinlein.

I’ve often wondered what would happen to racism in the world if every child born was interracial. The next best thing? If every child is multilingual.

I hope more research is done in this field.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I’m more than a little bit skeptical of the article–the quotes make it sound like the researchers draw massive generalizations from a single study, which is always bad practice and often how we get crappy science reporting in the media. No doubt if we look at the study, we’ll find some interesting results that might suggest something modest about differences between mono- and bilingual children. There are so many factors that potentially overlap for such children (diverse family life, parents who value multiple cultural worldviews, etc.), it’s probably pretty hard to actually determine that it is the speaking of two languages that drives the results.

    • Yeah, I’m a little skeptical myself. Seems almost too feel-good, doesn’t it? That was the reason for my “I hope more research is done in this field” comment at the end.

      Regardless, thought-provoking.

  2. Bilingualism has its benefits, but further (properly-done) research is required to fully identify if (as Eric said) being bilingual is the very thing that drives results other that the environment children are being exposed to. There are so many factors that can influence a child’s behavior and development that being general about a single thing is not exactly enough evidence over how one influence is above the other.

  3. “… another complementary possibility is that caregivers of bilingual children discuss language acquisition with their children more often than parents of other children, which could also lead to belief change.”

    From (a draft of) the paper’s discussion section.

  4. Based on the example, you could argue that bilingualism makes kids dumber:

    Bilingual kids were more likely to believe that ducks raised by dogs would bark instead of quack.

  5. Dr. Vivek Kumar Says: March 31, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    I am willing to put my 5 year son for the learning of Mandarin for at least two years. This age seems to be the best time to inculcate the feeling of togetherness and to understand and accept the cultural diversities. If a child could learn the two languages running the world economy; nothing beats the very concept.

    Shifting to Beijing very soon along with my family and favor the concept of bilingual teaching.

  6. I completely agree with this research. You can naturally learn about another culture when learning a second language. After all, you cannot fully learn a language without learning some of the culture. I think that it is a great way to promote tolerance of other cultures.
    Of course many cultural preferences are learned, not innate. These preferences are based on peer review, otherwise I think that you would not see pockets of similar religious beliefs and moral value congruity.

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