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Dual Language and Literacy Development


Dual Language and Literacy Development

Dr. Diana Hadi*                                                                        Dr. Aline El Jurdi**    



Bilingualism has been the pursuit of educators, researchers, curriculum designers and parents for decades. Researchers have struggled to define it and had met in certain points and disagreed in others. Many have questioned its benefits and disadvantages. This paper attempts to define bilingualism and language development, discuss effects of bilingualism on learners in educational and home contexts, shed light on positive effects of bilingualism on language and cognitive abilities, and discuss how language teaching can be enhanced through bilingualism. Additionally, it discusses researched and studied cases on bilingual children. The paper ends with implications for parents and educators.

Keywords: Bilingual, literacy, language development, language skills, cognitive skills, language teaching.


There has been a lot of research on bilingualism over the years. Many studies have found considerable advantages of being bilingual. Meeting the 21st century demands certainly requires one to be at least bilingual. Globalization has made the world look like a global village within the reach of any individual especially with the breakthrough of the Internet. The barriers of space and time were conquered and thus the need for a mutual language surfaced or became a necessity. Some have been able to meet the demands of globalization by at least speaking English in addition to their mother tongue or native language. As defined by Vienna Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE, 2009), English as a lingua franca (ELF) is the use of the English language as “a common means of communication for speakers of different first languages.” Departing from this definition, many questions can be posed. These include the following: Does this render people to be bilingual? What is bilingualism? Does it affect literacy development?

This paper aims at discussing the concept of bilingualism and shedding light on its importance. It further clarifies the link between bilingualism and literacy in an attempt to explain how bilingualism influences language teaching. This information is presented in light of authentic cases and life experiences as well as practical pedagogic implications.


* PhD in Applied Linguistics, Lebanese University, Faculty of Human Sciences, First Branch,, (00961) 71 94 07 70, Beirut, Lebanon.

** PhD in Educational Sciences, Notre Dame University, Faculty of Humanities,, (00961) 70 90 55 73, Beirut, Lebanon.

Bilingualism and Language Development

Bilingualism, a trait that was once considered a barrier, has now proved to have so many advantages for both children and adults (Şeker, 2018). The belief that it is necessary to learn more than one language and be bilingual in the 21st century whether we are educators, parents or students is an understatement (Espinosa, 2015). Historically speaking during the first half of the 20th century, there was a prevailing view that monolinguals are better language users because bilinguals are confused learners that lack proper cognitive development (Bialystok, 2017).

Yet, this view has changed, and it is now deemed necessary to learn more than one language to be well-prepared for the 21st century and its skills. Bilingualism, therefore, is now universally defined as making use of two languages by an individual or growing up in an environment where two languages are used on daily basis and it is commonly observed in societies all over the world (Şeker, 2018).

In this respect, it is important to define language development. Language development is the process by which children comprehend and communicate language during childhood (Collins Dictionary, 2019). Thus, bilingualism at the early stages of childhood at school or at home is an important experience that has the power to change the path and competence of the children’s cognitive and language development (Espinosa, 2015). In fact, bilingual education has important implications on language and literacy development on the long term and can influence individual’s skills and competencies (Bialystok, 2018).

Positive Effects of Bilingualism on Language and Cognitive Abilities

Most research has proven that bilingualism whether at school or at home has long lasting effects. Such effects appear on higher order cognitive skills including language development (Kaushanskaya, Gross, & Buac, 2014).

Recent non-invasive brain imaging techniques and neuro-imaging techniques allow researchers these days to examine the positive effects of learning two languages at the stages of infancy and early childhood (Şeker, 2018). Researchers discovered how strong exposure to and diverse experience with more than one language affect the language processing systems and their organization positively  in the brains of young Dual Language Learners or DLLs as they are referred to by researcher Linda Espinosa of the University of Missouri-Columbia (Espinosa, 2015).

Remarkably, it can be said that the research by Espinosa does not mention a specific age for the bilingual experience to be effective, yet the scientific community she mentions believes that when infants are exposed to two languages during which their bilingual abilities are emergent or growing, they are developing two separate yet linked linguistic systems (Espinosa, 2015). As a result, children experience cognitive improvements that are noticeable early on when the child hasn’t completed one year of age.

The production of language is also improved and this in turn leads to practical flexibility for these bilingual children (Espinosa, 2015). Hence, language becomes handy and flexible. In two large-scale quantitative studies done in the United States by Lindholm-Leary in 2014 and Lindholm-Leary and Block in 2016, positive effects of bilingualism on language skills and development were evident (as cited in Bialystok, 2018). According to the findings of these studies, bilingual education has strengthened young children’s language abilities and academic achievement (Bialystok, 2018).

 One final positive effect of bilingualism in children, DLLs, is that they exhibit certain functional abilities that include a good operational memory, restraining control, attention to relevant as opposed to irrelevant task signals and improved language skills in all the domains (reading, writing, speaking and listening) (Kaushanskaya et al., 2014).

Negative Effects of Bilingualism on Language and Cognitive Abilities

Theories that examine bilingualism state that there are certain negative consequences for the simultaneous learning of two languages on children’s ability to learn and develop language proficiency (Wallner, 2016). Historically, researchers argued that bilingualism leads to the confusion of the two languages being learned which may also lead to weakened cognitive abilities, intelligence and language skills (Al-Amri, 2013).

Additionally, speakers of two languages sometimes begin as limited users of the two languages. They are at a cognitive disadvantage because they have limited proficiency in the two languages (Wallner, 2016).This may be exhibited in a difficulty with the language in the school context or an overall tardiness in the educational context (Al-Amri, 2013). It is also claimed that monolingual English speakers, for instance, are considered more intelligent than bilingual speakers of English and Italian (Normann & Bylund, 2015).

Furthermore, Bialystok (2017) noted that most of the negative effects of bilingualism on language development can be summed under two main aspects. First, general language ability might be affected in terms of vocabulary as bilingual children are inclined to have a much smaller vocabulary than monolingual children in their one language (Bialystok, 2017). Second, if the two languages that are being acquired have two different writing systems like English and Japanese for instance then the needed literacy skills might not be acquired properly (Bialystok, 2017).

Despite the mentioned drawbacks, many studies and researches have focused on the important role bilingualism plays in enhancing and strengthening children’s overall language and literacy competencies (Bialystok, 2018; O’Brien, 2017). These studies outlined major benefits that include enhanced language and cognitive skills as well as improved academic achievement (Bialystok, 2018; O’Brien, 2017). As a result, bilingualism remains an important concept affecting language learning and improving many aspects in it, such as communication, reading, problem-solving, and semantic knowledge.

Cases on Bilingual Children

Many studies have focused on examining the effect of bilingualism on different aspects related to language and cognition (Bialystok, 2018). These studies have been conducted on children from different age groups and many of them focused on young children. One case of reference here is the case study of a 28-month old Turkish infant, called Murat, growing up in a bilingual environment (Şeker, 2018). The study examines the process of the bilingual acquisition of English and Turkish by Murat in order to determine the difference in the acquisition level of either of the two languages (Şeker, 2018).

The empirical study showed that the frequency of English words acquired by the child was higher than the frequency of Turkish words, meaning that the acquisition of Turkish was delayed compared to English for Murat (Şeker, 2018). This, it was determined also by the study is due to the quality of time spent learning the language rather than quantity; that is if the child spends quality time with a family member or a parent speaking the language, he or she acquires more (Şeker, 2018). Further experimentation with Murat revealed that the two languages at this age are acquired as one single system rather than two separate systems because syntactical operations will not have started by the age of 28 months (Şeker, 2018).

In another study done by Kehoe (2015), lexical-phonological interactions in children’s first words were examined. The sample included monolingual and bilingual German and Spanish speaking children and their earliest words were studied (Kehoe, 2015). Findings indicated that bilingual children have had better phonological characteristics and strengthened spatial knowledge than monolingual children (Kehoe, 2015). The study discusses these findings in light of theoretical context on bilingualism affirming that it promotes and strengthens phonetic variation and sophistication (Kehoe, 2015).

The above mentioned studies show that bilingualism is a broad concept, and it differs and varies based on different aspects, such as the language learnt, the teaching approach, and other surrounding factors. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that dual language learning tends to impact children’s language abilities starting at early stages such as infancy.

Enhancing Language Teaching through Bilingualism

Educators and particularly language teachers can utilize bilingualism and its positive characteristics to further develop language teaching. For instance, there is a technique called the Bilingual Method that is especially employed in teaching English (Jalilian, Rahmatian, Safa, & Letafati1, 2016). The Bilingual Method was developed by C. J. Dodson in 1967, and it primarily depends on three Ps in language teaching at any given session: Presentation, Practice and Production (Wallner, 2016). The language teacher presents certain material, students and teacher practice, and then they produce something relevant to what has been taught. Unquestionably L1 is used to learning L2 and too much focus is placed on the oral skill (Al-Amri, 2013).

In this respect, certain aspects that are related to language teaching are worth noting. First, students, in the mentioned method, become functional bilinguals as they emulate their teachers transitioning smoothly between L1 and L2 (Wallner, 2016). Second, advocates of the Bilingual Method maintain that L1 is the best source of learning L2 especially that it is grounded in learners’ heads (Wallner, 2016). Third, the bilingual method guarantees accessibility since students feel safe even at the beginning stages of learning a new language because of the familiarity of L1 that is guiding them (Wallner, 2016). Finally, the Bilingual Method is actually a successful tool for language teachers as he or she uses L1 effectively and employs oral language a lot (Kaushanskaya et al., 2014).

Implications of Bilingualism for Parents and Educators

Parents in the past were convinced that using a language with the mother tongue at home can damage their children’s cognitive and language development. Yet research now gives strong evidence that the effect of bilingualism at home as a result of learning a second language at school is positive (Bialystok, 2017). The disadvantages are relatively negligible and can be overcome with no difficulty.

The implications for education at school however are more difficult (Normann & Bylund, 2015). Children’s success in school depends greatly on their capacity in the language of instruction (Espinosa, 2015). They experience important linguistic activities such as learning to read, non-verbal subjects such as mathematics, and content-based subject matters such as social studies (Bialystok, 2017). In the cases above, children must be capable users of the school’s language of instruction, know its form and meaning and be able to read fluently in it. Bilingual children may not be the same as monolingual children, and second-language learners for whom English or French, for example, is a second language, may not have the needed skills in the language of instruction to succeed in school (Jalilian et al., 2016). Yet it should be understood that the enormous evidence mentioned earlier about the positive impact of bilingualism suggests that children must be proficient in the school language of instruction as their second language in order to be active participants in the classroom and harvest the best advantage from their educational experience (Bialystok, 2017).

Consequently, based on the above discussion educators can consider a number of implications when dealing with the concept of bilingualism and its effect on language teaching. These are outlined below.

  1. Dual language materials can be used to promote consistency in language teaching. In this respect, L1 can be used as a source of teaching in L2.
  2. Learners’ own knowledge should be included and integrated in the process of language teaching to allow learners to reflect on their educational experiences and make the teaching environment closer to learners.
  3. The development of second language (L2) should not be at the expense of the development of learners’ first language (L1). The two languages should, on the contrary, be given considerable attention.
  4. Classrooms should be active platforms for the effective immersion and integration of learners from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. This enables learners to be engaged in active, dynamic, and real-life discussions and learning experiences.
  5. Continuous reflections and evaluations should be done by educators to assess their teaching experiences and make better decisions depending on their students’ needs and interests.


This paper addressed bilingualism, a topic of considerable importance in today’s progressing world. The discussion primarily focused on the inherent link between bilingualism and language teaching and how these two issues are interrelated. As the literature shows, bilingualism continues to hold signification impact on language and literacy development and its effects are long-lasting and can shape one’s linguistic experience. Hence, this paper attempted to present valid implications for educators that can enhance their language teaching experience. When planning instruction, educators should take into account the 21st century’s skills that shape today’s education and impact students’ needs.


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Bialystok, E. (2017). Second language acquisition and bilingualism at an early age and the impact on early congitive development. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development , 1-4. doi:

Bialystok, E. (2018). Bilingual education for young children: Review of the effects and consequences. International Journal of Bilingual Education, 21(6), 666-679. doi:10.1080/13670050.2016.1203859.

Collins Dictionary (2019). Glasgow: Harper Collins Publishers.

Espinosa, L. M. (2015). Challenges and benefits of early bilingualism in the United States’ context. Global Education Review, 40-53. Retrieved from

Norrman, G. & Bylund, E. (2015). The irreversibility of sensitive period effects in language development: Evidence from second language acquisition in international adoptees. Developmental Science, 513-520. doi:10.1111/desc.12332

Kaushanskaya, M., Gross, M. & Buac, M. (2014). Effects of classroom bilingualism on task-shifting, verba lmemory, and word learning in children. Developmental Science, 564–583. doi:10.1111/desc.12142

Kehoe, M. M. (2015). Lexical-phonological interactions in biligual children. First Language, 35(2), 93-125. DOI: 10.1177/0142723715574398

Jalilian, S., Rahmatian, R., Safa, P. & Letafati, R. (2016). The effects of educational tools in reducing code-switching in child simultaneous bilingual education. Journal of Education and Learning, 1-12. doi:10.5539/jel.v5n4p306

Şeker, E. (2018). Bilingual acquisition of English and Turkish languages: A case study of a Turkish infant. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 14(2). 183-192. Retrieved from

O’Brien, M. G. (2017). Literature review on the impact of second-language learning. Canada: The Alberta Teachers’ Association.

VOICE (2009). The Vienna Oxford International Corpus of English (version 1.0 online).

Wallner, K. (2016). The effects of bilingualism on language development of children. Communication Sciences and Disorders: Student Scholarship and Creative Works, 1-33. Retrieved from

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