Is it easier to learn another language if you already know two? I’ve always suspected this was the case. First, in my own experience learning French in high school some things just seemed to come easier. I remember I used a reflexive one day and my teacher wanted to know where I had learned that since we hadn’t gotten to reflexive yet. To me, it “sounded” right. Probably because Spanish uses pretty much the same structure in this case. Of course I could have had an advantage for French learning because I knew Spanish and not because of bilingualism. But, I feel like I can throw Spanish at my bilingual friends even if their other language isn’t Spanish. I sensed that they “got it” in a way that monolinguals didn’t. So, it’s a question I’ve sometimes wondered about.
A recent news story caught my attention. The report states that bilingual (Russian/Hebrew) and monolingual (Hebrew) children were compared on how well they learned English. Findings seemed to indicate that the bilinguals were more proficient at learning English and that they additionally scored higher on knowledge of Hebrew. But, I wanted to know more– sometimes news reports don’t get it quite right and I wanted to make sure. Another report that I read also said that the bilinguals scored higher on an IQ test — I wanted to know more. So, I contacted the author of the paper, Dr. Abu-Rabia at the University of Haifa who sent me the paper published in the Bilingual Research Journal.
Children in the study were 82, 6th graders, divided evenly by group (bilingual and monolingual) and sex (boys and girls). The bilinguals learned Russian first and Hebrew second. All the students had been learning English for three years (since the 3rd grade) for 3 hours a week.
The researchers compared children on a number of measures including oral language, reading and writing, as well as general ability. There were no significant differences on the Raven (a test of IQ) and Hebrew vocabulary. But, the bilinguals scored higher on the following measures in English: vocabulary, syntactic judgment, morphological awareness, phonological decoding, spelling, and reading comprehension. The also scored higher on some measures in Hebrew including: reading words and phonological decoding. But, the monolinguals scored better on Hebrew measures of spelling and vocabulary.
So, what could be going on? It could be a matter of transfer of skills or a heightened awareness of language similarities or differences. Bilinguals may have more experience with putting sounds together in different ways, or of the different sounds that occur in each language. This will likely include spelling and reading in another language. Of course the monolinguals had the most in-depth knowledge of their first language spelling rules and vocabulary, which is consistent with other studies. But, knowing vocabulary that is distributed across two languages seemed to help bilinguals learn vocabulary in a third language more readily than the monolinguals. It was a very interesting study to read and the mechanisms by which these advantages occur (or don’t) are not well understood. But, as more of these studies are completed across more languages and language pairs we increase our understanding of bilingualism.