Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Immigrants


Child bilingualism constitutes a significant global phenomenon, which implies that many societies worldwide are multilingual. Thus, children encounter many languages that play a crucial role in shaping their thoughts and minds. If on one hand children may hear two (or more) languages from birth, they could also be reared bilingually despite not living in a bilingual family. This series of articles is therefore focused on bilinguals’ development and the mechanisms involved in the mastery of a plurality of linguistic codes.

The Bilingualism 101 series will be divided into the following chapters of content:

1. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Early Childhood.

2. Bilingualism 101: Biological Basis of Bilingualism.

3. Bilingualism 101: The Bilingual Brain.

4. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism and Society.

5. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Immigrants.

6. Bilingualism 101: Language Delay in Bilingualism.

Bilingualism in Immigrants

European countries largely differ in their immigration history and in receiving immigrants from many parts of the globe. The U.S. is the global leader in the immigrant population, with over 40 million immigrants (in 2020). Most of the immigrants arriving in the U.S. come from Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and El Salvador (see Budiman, 2020). There is in literature quite a strong consensus stating that belonging to an ethnic minority is often associated with several dementia risk factors. As said in the work by Kovaleva (2021, p. 1), “biological aging, influenced by social/behavioral factors, is a key contributor to dementia onset.” Immigrants thus go through a unique risk for their cognitive impairment and key factors in this process are, for instance, socioeconomic status, health literacy factors, cultural factors, psychological well-being factors, and English language proficiency. Nonetheless, ethnic minority and/or immigrant status is often associated with some degree of bilingualism, which is commonly known as a protective factor for dementia, as it may lead to increased cognitive reserve. Indeed, in the work by Abutalebi et al. (2015) bilingualism is presented as capable of delaying neurodegenerative diseases’ onset by an average of four to five years, therefore proving a crucial benefit for bilinguals. Moreover, immigrant status also has some reflections on children's condition. The work by Helot and Young (2002), for instance, shows the condition of bilingualism and language education in French primary schools: “the bilingualism of migrant children remains over-looked and is believed by many to delay the acquisition of French.” (p. 1). So, it seems that, while European languages are highly valued from a social and economic point of view, the languages spoken by immigrants and their children are often associated with poverty and low socioeconomic status.

child languages english chinese
Children from immigrants are naturally prone to speak more than one language.

Many studies prove that bilingualism has both advantages and disadvantages, such as the increased difficulty in lexical processes, and everything pertaining to the speed of lexical access, i.e., the time needed to activate and select a word in the target language. In more detail, such disadvantages have been proven to occur in several stages of life, ranging from childhood (Bialystok and Feng 2009) to young adults (Bialystok, 2008) to older adults (Bialystok et al., 2006). As for advantages, research (e.g., Bialystok et al., 2004, 2008) has shown two main trends: on the one hand, bilingualism has been associated with better executive control (switching and inhibition tasks). It seems that a significant part of the world’s aging bilinguals come from low- or middle-income countries, having thus acquired their second languages at a later stage of their lives (i.e., after migrating). Therefore, research has focused on the effects bilingualism has on little-educated older adult immigrants. A study by Gollan et al. (2011) found bilingualism to predict the diagnosis age of Alzheimer’s disease in low-educated Hispanics (but not in high-educated ones). Symptoms of dementia are similar through races and ethnicities. Even so, some ethnic minorities commonly show stigma and taboo associated with mental health problems (Liu et al, 2008), which usually affect the communication of pathologies, influencing the doctor-patient and doctor-caregiver relationship (Michaelson et al., 2004). It is in this social and cultural context that bilingualism gains its crucial role as a protective factor, which is however still debated. The study by Nielsen (2019) demonstrates that, compared to monolinguals, bilingual Turkish-Danish and Kurdish-Danish speakers (who learned their second language in their teenage years or later) have cognitive advantages such as a better general executive functioning and task switching ability, along with a trend for better episodic memory. Such findings may consequently tend to confirm the hypothesis according to which bilingualism gives a cognitive advantage in terms of an increased cognitive reserve and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline and dementia.

Brain and languages, german, french, spanish and english
The hypothesis sustaining that bilingualism represents a protective factor is still debated.

Arguably, Nielsen (2019) maintains that “in the case of adult bilingual immigrants we face the question: what is the chicken and what is the egg?”, meaning that “the ability to learn a second language in later life may act as a surrogate marker for inherent cognitive abilities and/or quality of any educational experience."(p. 126).

As globalization spreads in the current world, global and regional languages reach a prominent role in school systems and media. On the contrary, though, many consequences on local languages’ preservation seem to occur. As sustained by Lane (2017, p. 1), “one consequence of a flat world is the growing hegemony of global languages”. The first and most prominent reason that compels parents, politicians, and educators to give children access to a socially high and international language, lies in the promise of a better job and consequently of a better life. In contrast, local languages are being neglected: according to Nag et al. (2016, p. 1) “in bi- and multilingual settings, use of home language as a learning resource is uncommon.”

Language education in early childhood is strongly linked to the development of critical cognitive, emotional, and social skills (e.g., knowing how to express and control one’s feelings, interacting with others, and imaginative play). For this reason, solid proficiency in one’s mother tongue is extremely relevant for further development. Nowadays, it is well-known that our linguistic background has a key role in shaping our cultural identity. The cost of neglecting local languages is losing stories and cultural elements over time, consequently making children unaware of their cultural roots.

two people speaking, one speech eating the other
The risk for immigrants is that they could lose their native language in favour of the one which is spoken in their host country.

Young children learning L2 are one of the fastest growing segments of the global population
(Kan & Kohnert, 2005, p. 380)

Children coming from immigrants constitute quite a large part of those enrolled in childcare centers in countries such as the U.S. and Canada. Canadian cities have registered a systematic growth in the number of children born in Canada to immigrants (Chumak-Horbatsch, 2008), which currently form language minorities. For immigrants’ children, English represents neither a first nor a home language, so that enrolling in English-language childcare centers marks the beginning of their history as bilinguals. This condition where children at a very early stage in their L1 acquisition process are suddenly immersed in a second language that is usually unfamiliar to them — and partially to their parents — represents a new research area in early bilingualism. Very young children to immigrants which are enrolled in L2 childcare centers go through a relevant reduction in their time of exposure to the L1, which is consequently not fully acquired as they begin the exposure to L2. Wong Fillmore (1991) sustains that the onset of L2 exposure for children is crucial to determining an effective and successful family interaction. If such onset is too early and in L2-only school programs, it ends up displacing the L1. Typically developing monolinguals during preschool years face a crucial development in all aspects of language. Children this age (around 5 years old) usually start producing complex connected sentences along with their ability to learn new vocabulary. According to Bloom (2000), typically developing 3-6 years old monolingual English-speaking children in the U.S. add about three new words per day to their vocabulary, thus making rapid lexicon learning a pivotal characteristic of preschool years. On top of that, bilingual children face the additional difficulty of learning an L1 and an L2, interacting between each other. Therefore, we cannot consider learning a second language during childhood as a mere additive process. As exposed by Portes and Schauffler (1994), in a study on English and immigrants’ languages in South Florida, usually what is at risk in bilingual education for children with immigrant parents is the preservation of their competence in the native language.

child speaking the languages of his/her parents
A major risk for bilingual children from immigrants enrolled in monolingual education systems is to lose their native language.

The unfolding of the language adaptation process usually implies a pressure toward monolingualism, as explained in the work by Portes and Schauffler (1994). Such pressure consequently leads to the extinction of immigrant languages in most cases. The rapid processes of migration during the last decades brought to the creation of linguistic enclaves in several cities, especially around the U.S. and Europe. As for immigrant bilinguals, a study by Medvedeva and Portes (2017) tried to describe if bilingual immigrants have better academic outcomes with respect to monolinguals: “bilingualism seems to neutralize the possible negative effect of ethnic origins and extended the positive effect to high parental ambition.” (p. 1).

Although the advantages of bilingualism in immigrants (both adults and children) remain quite debated, bilinguals usually show higher levels of executive functioning and episodic memory than monolinguals. This holds for immigrants as well, who can in fact benefit from the effects of bilingualism in every stage of life.

Bibliographical references

Abutalebi, J., Guidi, L., Borsa, V., Canini, M., della Rosa, P. A., Parris, B. A., & Weekes, B. S. (2015). Bilingualism provides a neural reserve for aging populations. Neuropsychologia, 69, 201–210.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., Klein, R., & Viswanathan, M. (2004). Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence from the Simon Task. Psychology and Aging, 19(2), 290–303.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Ruocco, A. C. (2006). Dual-Modality Monitoring in a Classification Task: The Effects of Bilingualism and Ageing. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59(11), 1968–1983.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F., & Luk, G. (2008). Cognitive control and lexical access in younger and older bilinguals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34(4), 859–873.

Bialystok, E., & Feng, X. (2009). Language proficiency and executive control in proactive interference: Evidence from monolingual and bilingual children and adults. Brain and Language, 109(2–3), 93–100.

Bloom, P. (2000). How Children Learn the Meanings of Words (Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change). MIT Press.

Budiman, A. (2020, September 22). Key findings about U.S. immigrants. Pew Research Center.

Chumak-Horbatsch, R. (2008). Early bilingualism: children of immigrants in an English-language childcare center. Psychology of Language and Communication, 12(1), 3–27.

Gollan, T. H., Weissberger, G. H., Runnqvist, E., Montoya, R. I., & Cera, C. M. (2011). Self-ratings of spoken language dominance: A Multilingual Naming Test (MINT) and preliminary norms for young and aging Spanish–English bilinguals. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 15(3), 594–615.

Fillmore, L. W. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6(3), 323–346.

Helot, C., & Young, A. (2002). Bilingualism and Language Education in French Primary Schools: Why and How Should Migrant Languages be Valued? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5(2), 96–112.

Kan, P. F., & Kohnert, K. (2005). Preschoolers Learning Hmong and English. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 48(2), 372–383.

Kovaleva, M., Jones, A., & Maxwell, C. A. (2021). Immigrants and dementia: Literature update. Geriatric Nursing, 42(5), 1218–1221.

Lane, J. (2017, May 10). The War on Local Languages How Linguistic Hegemony Threatens Education in The Developing World. Babbel Magazine.

Liu, D., Hinton, L., Tran, C., Hinton, D., & Barker, J. C. (2008). Reexamining the Relationships Among Dementia, Stigma, and Aging in Immigrant Chinese and Vietnamese Family Caregivers. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 23(3), 283–299.

Medvedeva, M., & Portes, A. (2017). Immigrant Bilingualism in Spain: An Asset or a Liability? International Migration Review, 51(3), 632–666.

Michaelsen, J. J., Krasnik, A., Nielsen, A. S., Norredam, M., & Torres, A. M. (2004). Health professionals’ knowledge, attitudes, and experiences in relation to immigrant patients: a questionnaire study at a Danish hospital. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 32(4), 287–295.

Nag, S., Snowling, M. J., & Asfaha, Y. M. (2016). Classroom literacy practices in low- and middle-income countries: an interpretative synthesis of ethnographic studies. Oxford Review of Education, 42(1), 36–54.

Nielsen, T. R., Antelius, E., & Waldemar, G. (2019). Cognitive Advantages in Adult Turkish Bilingual Immigrants – a Question of the Chicken or the Egg. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 34(2), 115–129.

Portes, A., & Schauffler, R. (1994). Language and the Second Generation: Bilingualism Yesterday and Today. International Migration Review, 28(4), 640.

2020 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. (2020). Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 16(3), 391–460.

Visual sources

Figure 1. Unknown. (2021). Bilingual babies [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from

Figure 2. Unknown. (n.d.). Bilingual learning. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from

Figure 3. Mézel L. (2017). War languages header. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from

Figure 4. Joyce Hesselberth. (2011). 11KLAS-jumbo. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from

Author Photo

Antonio Verolino

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