Is your child growing up in a bilingual family?

If so, we have good news for you. First, everything will be alright; Second, we have lots of expert guidance on this matter. For instance, consider the following recent book by Jürgen Meisel:
Bilingual children: A guide for parents.

Jürgen Meisel is a distinguished scholar in the field of bilingualism with an extensive scholarly work on child bilingualism in Germany and Canada. He also has an additional commitment to making his expertise available to parents who are considering raising their children bilingual. After many years of running a web counseling service, writing for the general press and lecturing on the topic, this book distills his knowledge and long experience. Moreover, since Professor Meisel introduces some of the science that underlies our current understanding of bilingualism, this book should be interesting to anyone curious about what bilingualism is. Here are some of the questions that he addresses:

  • Is it possible for a child to acquire two languages simultaneously?
  • Will the child mix the languages and end up not speaking either language well?
  • Will it be alright if the child is exposed to three or more languages?

The answer to all these questions is yes – no – yes. It is reassuring – and empirically grounded.

Image by Markus Koljonen

Disentangling “meaning-based” vs. “meaning-agnostic” grammar use via mathematical modeling

Learn about some exciting research on language learning from David Abugaber, a PhD candidate in Dr. Kara Morgan-Short’s Cognition of Second Language Acquisition laboratory. You can find out more about him and his research at or by emailing

There’s a classic joke about second language acquisition that goes something like this: an English learner on vacation in the USA gets in a terrible traffic accident. The paramedics rush to him at the scene of the crash, yelling out “Are you OK?!” Bloodied and half-conscious at the scene of the crash, the English learner stammers, “I’m… fine… thank… you… and… you?”

This joke gets at something that most classroom language learners have probably run into: the massive disconnect between “grammar as access to meaning” vs. “grammar as muscle memory.” However, traditional frameworks from linguistic theory – whether they conceive of language as hierarchical syntactic trees with discrete branching nodes or as construction-style templates with embedded meaning such as “[VERB] the [TIME PERIOD] away” – don’t distinguish between these two styles of processing. If theoretical linguists are serious about relating their field of study to language learners’ lived experiences (rather than waving their hands and saying that manifestations of language in the real world fall under the category of “performance,” outside of their abstract idealized domain of “competence”), then they should stop ignoring the fact that grammar can be used in real life – and  even used successfully – without necessarily engaging meaning.

This distinction between meaning-based vs. meaning-agnostic grammar processing can be examined by combining mathematical models from cognitive psychology with a classic artificial language paradigm that involves a covert rule wherein the pseudowords “gi” and “ul” tend to co-occur with nouns for living things whereas “ro” and “ne” tend to co-occur with non-living things. The trial structure for this experiment paradigm is shown below:

Notice that there’s two possible ways to apply the covert grammatical rule in this experiment: either by seeing “gi” and immediately activating the mental concept of “living” (thus, “grammar as meaning”), or by seeing “gi” and anticipating a button press for the answer choice “living,” without actually thinking of a living/non-living distinction (thus, “grammar as muscle memory”). These two kinds of processing can be pulled apart using mathematical models that describe cognition in two-choice reaction time tasks decisions by differentiating between processes tied to “evidence accumulation” vs. time spent in non-decision-related processes (e.g., tied to non-cognitive factors like motor speed or speed of low-level perception). One such model, called the drift-diffusion model, is illustrated below:

Reproduced from Vinding, M., Lindeløv, J. K., Xiao, Y., Chan, R. C., & Sørensen, T. A. (2018). Volition in prospective memory: Evidence against differences in recalling free and fixed delayed intentions.

In our results, participants who consciously noticed the hidden grammar rule showed the first kind of effect: their drift-diffusion modeling results showed that bias in evidence accumulation at the start of each trial (denoted in the figure above) was affected for trials that violated the grammatical rule. By contrast, participants who did not consciously notice the rule showed the second kind of effect: they learned the rule subconsciously (as indicated by having overall faster reaction times to rule-following vs. rule-violating trials), but their rule learning was manifested as changes to non-decision times (denoted t in the figure above) such that their responses were affected because of factors outside of evidence accumulation process (maybe their index fingers were too eager to hover above the predicted answer key?). This suggests that they had become subconsciously attuned to recurring predictable button-press patterns in the experiment. These results present an interesting case study for second language educators about how successful task performance does not always require actual engagement with meaning. 

We are currently collecting data to determine whether subconscious grammar learning can occur even when button presses in the experiment aren’t predictable. For now, though, my challenge to linguists out there is: is meaning-based grammar use necessarily “better”? Doesn’t automatizing language use lead to faster and less metabolically-costly processing? As an L2 learner, I can think of so many times when having a handy memorized phrase in my holster, ready to deploy “out of the box” with “no assembly required,” took me a lot farther than a hyper-abstract metalinguistic rule that is more generalizable but kills the flow of conversation, if you have to stop and mentally apply it mid-sentence (“If there is both a direct object clitic and an indirect object clitic, then the first clitic gets replaced with se…”). To illustrate this more tangibly for any Spanish teacher out there: hasn’t this catchy earworm of a song done much more for teaching learners to say “I like ___ “, much more than a boring grammar explanation ever did?  Manu Chao – Me gustas tú – YouTube

Two new conferences on heritage language!

The first conference is The 8th National Symposium on Spanish as a Heritage Language, with a focus on the linguistic reality of Spanish heritage speakers, as well as the pedagogical needs of these speakers in a classroom setting. The conference, organized by the Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context, The Graduate Center, CUNY, takes place May 13 to May 16. Although the deadline for submissions has passed, since the conference will be held virtually, anyone interested in Spanish as a heritage language should check it out.

Second, we are happy to share information with you on the Thirteenth Heritage Language Research Institute, which focuses on language similarities / differences in bilingual situations. The conference, organized by the University of North Carolina, takes place June 7 to June 10. Once again, as a virtual conference, it is accessible to all who are interested.

FAQ: Is being bilingual a cognitive burden?

Bilinguals have consistently shown to have cognitive advantages: planning, problem solving and performing mentally demanding tasks. Bilinguals also are better at ignoring distractions, staying focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and keeping information in mind (i.e. remembering long sequences of instructions). Research also links bilingualism to a delay in the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A possible reason for these cognitive advantages is that languages are permanently activated and the speaker has to decide which language to use for every word. This causes a continuous brain workout.

FAQ: How long does it take for a child to become bilingual?

Children can become bilinguals from the beginning if they are exposed to both languages sufficiently. The good news is that children acquire languages naturally. You don’t have to teach them; just interacting with them in a language will allow them to acquire it. The bad news is that children also forget a language quickly if they are not exposed to it anymore. To be safe, you should keep using the language with your children at least until after puberty. Eventually, whatever language you chose to use with your children will become the language of your relationship. It would feel really odd to start using a different language.

FAQ: Is mixing languages bad?


Mixing languages is usually a sign of high competence in both languages. Bilinguals often do it even within a sentence (known as code-switching). This does not mean they cannot speak in just one language, or that they are not sufficiently fluent in both languages. It simply means that these speakers use their whole potential in communication, i.e. using the expression that best fits what they want to say. Some studies have found that speakers who are very fluent in both languages are the ones that mix the most.

Chicago Chapter Bilingualism Matters

Bilingualism Matters Chicago Chapter

Five Chicago-area universities, including the University of Illinois at Chicago (and Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, and the University of Chicago), established a Chicago chapter of Bilingualism Matters.  The Chicago chapter, which held its launch on March 19th, will work together with scientists and linguists to provide data to support schools and communities navigate bilingualism. According to a statement from the official site, all branches exist in order to engage the public with the latest research about bilingualism and language learning, and con provide more information in different languages. The organization was originally established in 2008 at the University of Edinburgh, and works to study bilingualism in order to inform and share perspectives on bilingual education, language learning, and the bilingual experience.

Can you learn a new language in three weeks with Netflix?

With the rise of technology, there has also been a rise in methods and systems to learn languages, all promising fast and easy learning. One of the oldest and most well known options to learning a second language (or third or fourth) is Rosetta Stone. Having been around since 1992, the program’s approach is Dynamic Immersion, which introduces sights, sounds, words, and sentences in a way that is supposed to accelerate the learning program.

Then there are learning apps like Duo Lingo or Drops, which offer teaching through translating words and phrases, visual learning, and forced immersion, all on the learner’s own time. And, the newest option: Language Learning With Netflix (LLN), which provides subtitles in the original language and English in order to allow the watcher to experience a more immersive viewing.

But do any of these options work? And moreover, can they fully teach a new language in a limited amount of time? In short: no. In an article published by the BBC, two factors that contribute to the ease and speed are native tongue and the language that one is learning. Also noted is time dedicated to the task of learning. An hour of day can make a difference, but stronger immersion is needed to make for better learning. Recommended are reading and watching material in the target language, and participating in everyday activities in the target language.

One issue however, that does not make any of the programs or apps a one-size fits-all is that people have different learning styles. Some may benefit from memorization and pronunciation, some might favor visual learning/association, and even still, others might find it easier to learn through practical use and an immersive experience.

In the end, services like LLN, Duolingo, or Rosetta Stone may entice individual to start the process of learning a new language, but the benefits over other modes of language learning still need to be investigated. They can be a useful supplemental resource, but these services are not perfect tools to learn a new language, let alone learn a new language in three weeks.

Bilingualism Benefits Low-income Children

According to the Language magazine, a study was recently published by Pascale Engel de Abreu  and her colleagues from the University of Luxembourg which examined the effects of bilingualism on the functioning of low income children.

The study was done according to Engel de Abreu because low-income children are a vulnerable population, and studying cognitive processes in these children represents a significant advancement in the understanding of childhood development.

In their study, a total of 80 second grade students from low-income families participated. About half of the children were first or second generation immigrants to Luxembourg, who spoke both Luxembourgish and Portuguese. The other half of the children only spoke Portuguese and lived in Northern Portugal.

For this experiment both groups completed test in Portuguese and the bilingual children also completed the task in Luxembourgish in order to test their vocabulary skills. The researchers examined how the children represented knowledge in memory, using two different tasks to see how much visual information the children could keep in mind at a given time, according to the Language magazine.

According to Engel de Abreu, this is the first study of its kind to show that although minority bilingual children from low-income families face linguistic challenges, they also demonstrate important strengths in other cognitive domains.

The researchers also believe that these findings could help reduce the achievement gab between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Their findings, according to the Language magazine suggest that intervention programs that are based on second language teaching are good places to start for future research. Engel de Abreu ended by saying that foreign languages widen children’s linguistic and cultural horizons, and help foster healthy development of executive control and therefore should be pursued.


Bilingualism: How we turn on and off languages

A team of researchers has uncovered the distinct computations that occur when individuals switch between different languages, this finding is important because it could provide new insights into the nature of bilingualism.

Appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, a New York University doctoral candidate and lead author of this study explained that their study helps pinpoint what occurs in the brain during the language switching process.

Most importantly, this will help better understand the neural activity that is exclusively associated with disengaging from one language and then engaging with a different one.

Previous studies have suggested that while disengaging from one language requires some cognitive effort, activating a new language comes relatively cost-free from a neurobiological standpoint. However, it was unknown until this study, whether it was disengaging from the previous language or engaging in a new language that drove the language switch.

Researchers studied bilingual individuals fluent in English and American Sign Language (ASL), since they often produce both languages simultaneously.

The results showed that when bilinguals fluent in ASL and English switched languages, turning a language “off” led to increased activity in cognitive control areas while turning a language “on” was no different than not switching, according to the article.

Over all, these findings suggested that the difficulty of language-switching does not lie in engaging a new language, but instead is due to the disengagement from the previous language, says Blanco-Elorrieta.