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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Language Immersion Programs vs. Home-Based Bilingualism

It's no secret that bilingual students outscore their monolingual peers almost across the board as they advance in school years. An internet search will reveal troves of research supporting that fact. Newer research is also showing that life-long bilinguals enjoy cognitive benefits into their senior years, as well.

Interestingly, research to date has focused primarily on bilingualism acquired from the home or community. But what about bilingualism acquired through a second-language immersion program? Might those students expect the same cognitive benefits as their "true" bilingual peers?

Research out of the University of Liège, Belgium says "YES!"

Researchers looked at a total of 106 French-speaking eight-year-old children from two language groups: 53 children enrolled in English immersion classes since the age of five (the immersion group) and 53 children enrolled in monolingual French-speaking classes (the monolingual group). The two groups were administered a battery of tasks assessing attentional and executive skills.

The immersion group’s reaction times were significantly faster than those of the monolingual group on tasks assessing alerting, auditory selective attention, divided attention and mental flexibility. These results show that:

After only 3 years, a language immersion school experience produces many of the cognitive benefits associated with (true) early bilingualism.

Given these results, it is truly exciting to see how many language immersion programs are popping up around the U.S. and Canada, and beyond!

Future research by this team will follow these same groups through age 12, to determine how increased automaticity of the second language will affect later tests of attention and executive functioning. Should be fascinating to see!

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


  1. Great post. It's so fascinating to me how research on bilingualism is finally taking off, and how we are discovering benefits far beyond simply being able to speak more than one language.

    1. Agreed! And I'm so excited to see these same benefits can come from a school based immersion experience, for those of us whose households aren't fully bilingual. Very exciting!