Dr Diana De Sousa, Research Psychologist

PsySSA RCP Division Chair: Registered Counsellors and Psychometry

The effects of bilingualism on cognitive and literacy tasks has been the subject of much debate due to it involving the interaction between language and cognitive systems (Bialystok, 2009). Bilingualism is defined as the ability to speak two languages, but the reality is much more complex: Individuals speak languages they learned in different social and educational contexts (i.e. one language may be spoken only and the other the language of teaching and learning), to different degrees of proficiency (i.e. one may dominate and the language of literacy instruction may not be the individuals first-language), and languages differ in the nature of writing systems, such as whether a language permits easy letter-to-sound decoding (such as Afrikaans, Zulu or Sotho) or the use of whole-word decoding strategies, such as English, and all of these factors are important to consider in determining the influence of bilingualism on cognition (Bialystok, Luk, & Kwan, 2005). To begin to disentangle the effects of bilingualism the effect of variations in language proficiency, learning to read in different alphabetic orthographies, and social educations contexts related to the language of teaching and learning need to be considered.

The PsySSA Division for Registered Counsellors and Psychometrics presents a review of research carried out in South Africa to understand clearly and reliably the effects of bilingualism on cognitive and literacy task performance. This research is of relevance to all psychological practitioners faced with interpreting test scores for individuals who speak more than one language, a common phenomenon given the multilingual and multicultural nature of the South African society (Laher & Cockcroft, 2013). Assessment guidelines in line with the recommendations of the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP, 2006) to describe bilingual language competence.

In terms of the effect of degree of language proficiency on cognitive measures, De Sousa and colleagues (2010) found that in Grade 3 monolingual English taught to read and spell in their first language bilingual Afrikaans-English children taught to read in their Afrikaans first-language and English (L2) demonstrated no significant differences on simultaneous and sequential cognitive processing scales, but did demonstrate significant differences on the Hand Movement and Matrix Analysis’s subtests of the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children (K-ABC, Kaufman and Kaufman, 1985). Hand Movements was performed significantly better in bilingual Afrikaans-English children in-line with research that children learning to read and spell in a transparent orthography develop rapid letter-to-sound decoding skills due to transparent orthographies having a direct one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Less transparent orthographies, on the other hand, have a more complex relationship between letters and sounds. For example, the English has words such as ‘yacht’ and ‘knight’, which cannot be read or spelt using sound alone. Consistent with this, the superior performance on Matrix Analogies by the monolingual English children can be explained by these children learning to read and spell in English rely on memory for sequential order, or the word as a whole. The bilingual children in the study were raised in an English-speaking community, attended schooling in English and Afrikaans, but spoke Afrikaans as their first-language were equivalents in terms of socio-economic status relative to their monolingual English peers. Nonetheless, level of bilingualism and orthographic transparency influenced performance on two subtests of the K-ABC.

De Sousa and colleagues (2010a) concluded that using a relatively culture fair test should not equate with assuming that monolinguals and bilinguals cognitive development and literacy competence follows a similar developmental trajectory. Rather, scores on cognitive and literacy measures need to be investigated with the following in mind: type of bilingualism, characteristics of the orthography of the child’s first-language, which in turn influence the specific phonological-orthographic units children attend to when learning to read and spell (Goswami, Gombert, & De Barrera, 1998; De Sousa, Greenop, & Fry, 2010b). The role of language proficiency on tests of reading comprehension has also been found in primary schooling (De Sousa & Broom, 2012; Vokel, Seabi, Cockcroft, Goldschagg, 2016) secondary schooling and higher education (Webb, 2002), and Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices (Knoetze, Bass, & Steele, 2005).

In all of these studies, a low level of language proficiency in one or both languages is consistently related to low academic reading scores in bilingual children relative to their monolingual counterparts. The reason for lower scores on reading comprehension is mediated by level of exposure to each language a bilingual individual speaks (Bialystok, et al., 2008). This view is based on research in Canada, which shows that when bilingual children use both languages daily and are taught to read and spell in both languages their performance on cognitive and reading tasks become indistinguishable from their monolingual peers (Comeau, Cormier, Grandmaison, & Lacroix, 1999; Hipfner-Boucher et al., 2015; Genesee, 2015). This research is in line with Cummin’s (2000) linguistic interdependence hypothesis states that reading instruction in the first-language permits transfer of these skills to the L2, but this transfer is dependent on at least three years of both spoken and written in the first-language (Cummins 2000), and would still require taking into consideration orthographic differences between the bilingual child’s first-language and L2 (Gholamain & Geva, 1999).

Meschyan and Hernandez (2005) found that balanced Spanish-English bilinguals and partial Spanish-English bilinguals activated slightly different brain regions with partial bilinguals recruiting additional brain regions to Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas when reading words in English and Spanish. De Sousa (2016, 2017) found that reading words in Afrikaans reached a higher level of competency than reading in English, partial Zulu-English children demonstrated lower reading scores relative to their monolingual English and balanced Afrikaans-English peers. Each of these groups of children also demonstrated different predictors for reading in English, thereby providing support for a linguistic and educational context-dependent module of reading acquisition for children learning to read in South Africa (De Sousa, 2016, 2017). Additionally, De Sousa, Greenop, and Fry (2011) found that children acquiring Afrikaans and English simultaneously exhibited spelling patterns that were atypical of monolingual spelling development in either language. Taken together these results indicate that the language and literacy skills of bilingual children reflect differences due to language proficiency (e.g. balanced or partial bilingualism) and language pair being acquired (e.g. transparent vs opaque orthography) or language learning context (e.g. simultaneous versus successive).

Guidelines proposed by the IALP (2006) state that both languages need to be assessed in order to reach valid conclusions about a bilingual child’s language competence. Other procedures include collecting information on the child’s language(s) exposure and usage and testing bilingual children on a variety of tasks to obtain a broader profile of their language and literacy skills. This is important to minimise any disadvantage due to limited familiarity with the task, or vocabulary (e.g. specific concepts such as verb phrases or noun phrases may be used more often in one language than in the other language) (Pena, Bedore, & Rappazzo, 2003). Such a holistic assessment requires Registered Counsellors and Psychometrists to assess children’s scholastic skills in both languages through interpreters or other bilingual professionals. This requires practitioners to develop knowledge about the bilingual language acquisition process to distinguish between bilingual children who might have a language disorder and require a referral to an appropriate professional from those are in the process of learning a second or additional language and would benefit from a developmental intervention in conjunction with a multidisciplinary support team (HPCSA Form 258, 2013). This would ensure that the assessment and intervention provided to bilingual children will allow them to cope with the educational environment.


Bialystok, E. (2009) Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 12 (1), 3-11.

Bialystok, E, Luk, G., Kwan, E. (2005). Bilingualism, Biliteracy, and Learning to Read: Interactions Among Languages and Writing Systems. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9 (1), 43-61.

Cummins, J. (2002). Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon. Multilingual Matters.

Comeau, L., Cormier, P., Grandmaison, E., & Lacroix, D. A Longitudinal Study of Phonological

Processing Skills in Children Learning to Read in a Second Language. Journal of Educational Psychology 91(1), 29-43

De Sousa, D. S., Greenop, K., & Fry, J. (2010a).Simultaneous and Sequential Cognitive Processing in

Monolingual and Bilingual Children in South Africa. South African Journal of Psychology; 40 (2), 165-173.

De Sousa, D.S., Greenop, K., & Fry, J. (2010b). The effects of phonological awareness of Zulu-

speaking children learning to spell in English: A study of cross-language transfer. British

Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(4), 517-33.

De Sousa, D.S. Greenop, K., & Fry, J. (2011) Cross-language transfer of spelling strategies in English

and Afrikaans Grade 3 children. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14(1): 49-67

De Sousa, D.S., & Broom, Y. (2012). Learning to read in English: Phonological and reading abilities

of monolingual English and bilingual Zulu (L1) speaking children. Education as Change, 16 (1), 83-96.

De Sousa. D.S. (2017). To Be or Not to be Bilingual: Cognitive Processing Skills and Literacy

Development in Monolingual English, Emergent Zulu-English and biliterate Afrikaans-English children. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. University of the Witwatersrand.

De Sousa. D.S. (2017). Bilingualism, Cognition, and Language-Learning. Paper presented at the

International Neuropsychological Society. Cape Town. South Africa, July 7, 2017. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 23, Suppl 2, 3-66.

Genesee, F. (2015). Myths about early childhood bilingualism, Canadian Psychology, 56, 6-15.

Gholamain, M., & Geva, E. (1999). Orthographic and Cognitive Factors in the Concurrent

Development of Basic Reading Skills in English and Persian. Language Learning, 49 (2), 183–375.

Goswami, U., Gombert, J., & De Barrera, F. (1998). Children’s Orthographic Representations and

Linguistic Transparency: Nonsense Word Reading in English, French and Spanish. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 19-52.

Hipfner-Boucher, K., Milburn, T., Weitzman, E., Greenberg, J., Pelletier, J., & Girolametto, L.

Narrative abilities in subgroups of English language learners and multilingual peers. International Journal of Bilingualism, 19, 677-692.

Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). (2013). Professional Board of Psychology

Framework for Education, Training, Registration and Scope of Registered Counsellors. Retrieved from http://www.hpcsa.co.za/Uploads/editor/UserFiles/downloads/psych/psycho_policy/form_258_registered_counsellor_%2004oct_2013.pdf.

International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (2006). Recommendations for Working with

Bilingual Children. Retrieved from http://www.iap.info.

Kaufman, A.S., & Kaufman, N. L. (1985). The Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children.

Interpretive Manual. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

Knoetze, J., Bass, N., Steele, G. (2005). The Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices: Pilot norms of

Isi-Xhosa speaking primary leaners in the peri-urban Eastern Cape. South African Journal of Psychology, 35, 175-194.

Laher, S., & Cockcroft, K. (2013). Contextualising psychological assessments in South Africa. In S.

Laher & L. Cockcroft (Eds), Psychological assessment in South Africa. Research and applications (pp. 1-14). Johannesburg: Wits University Press

Meschyan G., & Hernandez, A.E. (2006). Impact of language proficiency and orthographic

transparency on bilingual word reading: a fMRI investigation. Neuroimaging, 29 (4), 1135-40.

Pena, E., Bedore, L.M., & Rapazzo, C. (2003). Comparison of Spanish, English and Bilingual

Children’s Performance Across Semantic Tasks. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 34 (1), 5-17.

Volkel, G., Seabi, J., Cockcroft, K., & Goldschagg, P. (2016). The Impact of Gender, Socioeconomic

Status and Home Language on Primary School children’s Reading Comprehension in KwaZulu-Natal. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13, 1-11.

Share This