Double the Language, Double the Smart?

I have always known the importance of language. My parents are trilingual, and I was raised bilingual. In college, I major in psychology and minor in a language as well, in hopes of one day being trilingual like my parents are. As a psychology student, I’ve been taught that the brain is a sponge, and during childhood we pick up on things faster, language included. However, the age old question is: does being bilingual make you more intelligent? Bilingualism creates changes in the brain that researchers can actually see. When looking at fMRIs (machines that track brain activity), there was more brain activity in both hemispheres of the pre-frontal cortex in bilingual people. Some researchers hypothesize that this is because in order to answer in one language, the other needs to be repressed. Because of this, bilingual children are believed to be better at completing mental tasks and puzzles.


Hypothesis: Bilingual students perform better on mental tasks that involve them having to switch attention from one thing to another.

Null Hypothesis: Being bilingual has no effect on a student’s performance on mental tasks.

Study: In 2004, psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee asked monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares on a computer screen into two separate digital bins, one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle. First, they were asked to sort by color (blue circles to blue square bin and red squares to red circle bin). This task was easy for both groups. Then, they were asked to sort by shape (blue circles to red circles bin and red squares to blue square bin). The bilinguals were significantly better at this task.


Conclusion: While intelligence is so varied and cannot be exactly proven by these skills based tasks, it is unfair to say whether or not being bilingual can make a person more intelligent. However, there is significant research on this particular hypothesis that makes it quite clear that bilingual children are certainly quicker at performing these mental tasks, when they involve switching attention. Therefore, the hypothesis is proven.

Switching attention is a large part of intelligence and daily life, including driving. Can we assume that this means bilingual students are better drivers as well? Again, nothing that broad can necessarily be proven, as everything involving this kind of intelligence is mostly situational. This popular study does suffer from the Texas sharp shooter fallacy because it ignores the data against bilingual children and what they are considerably worse at than monolingual children. Or perhaps there is no research on this part of the study because maybe there are only benefits to being bilingual.

Works Cited


5 thoughts on “Double the Language, Double the Smart?

  1. Marvin Barnhill

    One of the reasons we are the superior beings on this earth is because of our ability to use complex language to communicate. I think this ability must be linked to the fact that we are most intelligent. This leaves much room to believe that those who can speak and understand multiple languages would have advantages in some areas of intelligence. I’ve linked an article from Cambridge University that examines the historical relationship between intelligence and language.

  2. Wendy Sun

    As a person who is tri-lingual, I can speak Cantonese, mandarin, and English, I think knowing more languages is sometimes a bad thing. Many cases I would know how to say a word in English and Cantonese, but I would not know how to say it in mandarin. Children who listened to many different languages during childhood will be more susceptible and have an easier time to learn new languages. When I was a baby, I was raised by my grandmother who only spoke mandarin. When I was 5 I moved to the US with my parents, who only spoke Cantonese. I learned English in elementary school. I haven’t heard mandarin since I was 5 but when I visited my grandmother when I was 13, I was able to somehow recall mandarin and understood what she was saying, despite not learning mandarin at all. Maybe it was because Cantonese and Mandarin are somewhat similar, but personally I think it was because I had Mandarin inside me all along.

  3. lkr5215

    As a bilingual student taking another language this topic caught my attention. I have always heard that bilingual students are smarter but never tried to look into this further. I like how the blog is very clear and concise and it stays on topic along with gathering your own ideas using the things we learned in class. I suggest just further research if this is something you are truly interested in.

  4. Francis John Bassani

    I found this to be very interesting and intriguing and also good job. While reading your blog I couldn’t help but ask the question are people who can sign language in other languages as well as their own also just as intelligent if not more so? French signing is different than american signing and so on and so forth. An article here goes more into depth about children and learning more than one sign language.

  5. Sarah Elizabeth Read

    I have always wanted to learn another language fluently. I took Spanish for 5 years, but in no way would I consider myself bilingual. Somehow I have always felt as though people who can speak more than one language fluently have an advantage in life. Not only are you able to speak to people of two languages, but you are also able to connect cultures together. At one point in my Spanish learning career, I experienced something completely unique: thinking in another language. Something that I’ve heard of many people doing is raising their children to speak two languages. It seems to me as though there would be a lot of benefits that come along with this. Here’s an link to a site that talks about the pros and cons of raising a bilingual child:

Leave a Reply