Identifying Research and Cognitive Gains to Trilingualism in Young Children, Grades K-5

A review of the literature in cognitive gains to trilingualism. identifyingresearchandcognitivegainstotrilingualisminyoungchildrengradesk-5

Outline of the research

  1. Goals
    1. Multicultural understanding, acceptance, and compassion
    2. Build/form pathways that will support critical thinking in STEM classes
  2. Cognition
    1. Alzheimer’s
    2. Codeswitching
    3. The multilingual mode
    4. Learning a new vowel system
  3. Methods of measuring success
    1. Britain’s Model of Multilingual Exposure
    2. FLEX vs FLES
    3. Bilingual vs. Tri/Multilingual Success





Amanda Abrahams

French and Spanish Teacher at The Colorado Springs School

Colorado Springs, CO, USA


Learning a language between the ages of 5-11 is age appropriate because of a child’s brain plasticity. A young child’s brain’s ability to form pathways is seamless compared to an older student’s brain. Learning a new language is incredibly taxing on older children and adults. These enhanced pathways in the brain contribute to forming connections and thinking critically in other subjects. Learning a language inherently compartmentalizes language in your brain, creating a training space in your brain for the critical skills and deeper thinking that students will need in their other classes later in their academic lives. Creating a trilingual classroom for young children will build pathways that will support critical thinking not only in STEM classes, but in their personal and professional lives.

Some goals of a trilingual program can be learning for exposure, enhancing multicultural understanding, acceptance, and compassion. Just exposing students to a different way of thinking can expand their world and ability to communicate. Learning a new language can literally change the way you see the world. “Learning Japanese, for example, which has basic terms for light and dark blue, may help you perceive the colour in different ways” (Athanasopoulos et al., 2010). When exposing students to different languages simultaneously, they can create pathways that will support critical thinking across disciplines.

Cognitive gains: Alzheimer’s, codeswitching, and the multilingual mode

Alzheimer’s Disease

Being bilingual can lead to improved listening skills, since the brain has to work harder to distinguish different types of sounds in two or more languages.  (Krizman et al., 2012). Trilinguals show larger cognitive advantages than bilinguals, “trilinguals may develop a larger cognitive supply”(Schroeder & Marian, 3).

Many studies have shown that older adults who are bilingual have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later than monolinguals; this is also true for trilinguals. “Patients who were trilingual had been diagnosed [with Alzheimer’s disease] marginally later than had bilingual patients (78.6 years for trilinguals versus 76.7 years for bilinguals)” (Schroeder & Marian, 6). “Trilinguals should not only have more protection against Alzheimer’s disease, but they should also have more protection against mild cognitive impairment.” (Schroeder & Marian, 7).


Parents often worry that their child is confused when learning more than one language and they can hear their child switching back and forth between different languages. This might seem as though their child is confusing the two languages when in reality, they are most likely codeswitching. Codeswitching is often falsely perceived as confusion, rather than a demonstration of their comfortability with, and understanding of, a second/third language. Codeswitching is defined as “changes from one language to another in the course of conversation” (Wei, 14 as cited in Edwards & Dewaele, 222). Codeswitching is the “illustration of a skilled manipulation of overlapping sections of two (or more) grammars [with] virtually no instance of ungrammatical combination of two languages in codeswitching, regardless of the bilingual ability of the speaker (Wei,15 as cited in Edwards & Dewaele, 222). Codeswitching is unique because “they comply with the formal and functional constraints of all three languages” (Stavans and Swisher, 217). “Unique trilingual competence capitalizes on three languages… it exhibits ‘economy-efficiency’ in communication and ‘the formal properties of language making some structures more prone to codeswitching’” (Edwards & Dewaele, 217). “These switches are unique because they comply with the formal and functional constraints of in all three languages” (Edwards & Dewaele, 224), exhibiting appropriate use of the language by the speaker. “‘Economy-efficiency’ in communication and ‘the formal properties of language making some structures more prone to codeswitching’ (Edwards & Dewaele, 224). This can be seen in Spanish and in French because both languages are SVO (Subject Verb Object) languages, often times with similar roots. “Codeswitches were found to be quite frequent in the informal situation but less numerous in the formal situation” (Edwards & Dewaele, 224), indicating that students are aware of the social affordances and constraints that come with different languages.

In Edwards & Dewaele’s 2011 study,  they measured the frequency of codeswitching between a trilingual (Arabic, French, English) daughter and her mother. “The use of ‘Madame’…appears frequently in Jala’s speech, even when she is speaking English, because it is linked to the teacher’s name” (Edwards & Dewaele, 231).  This is a possible explanation for codeswitching in certain contexts. “Codeswitching patterns are unique to every multilingual individual in any given situation” (Edwards & Dewaele, 234). “Morphosyntactic boundary violations may constitute evidence of incipient unique trilingual competence” (Edwards & Dewaele, 234).

The codeswitching that I have seen in my own classes has been explained by Edwards & Dewaele’s research. In my second grade Spanish class, 7 year old Logan describes his brother: “my brother is so peresozo”. His appropriate use of the adjective perezoso indicates that he not only understands when and where to use peresozo, but he is using humor in Spanish to appease to his peers. When students codeswitch with humorous intent, it means they are becoming increasingly comfortable and confident with that second or third language. It makes sense that their willingness to play with language signals understanding. The same can be said for first grader Maxwell. When I asked the five year old first grader, “¿Como estas?” to which he replied, “je suis fatigué”, his use of codeswitching is not incorrect because he understands that the teacher speaks Spanish and French. It would, however, be an incorrect answer if Elaine asked him, “¿Como estas?”. Because he has never heard Elaine speak French, his answer would be something like, “estoy muy bien/estoy cansando”. Even at age 5, these students are using the language appropriately and correctly in the context of our conversations.

The multilingual mode

“Once a speaker is operating in the multilingual mode, the actual number of languages available is, in itself, irrelevant to what can be selected for use” (Edwards & Dewaele, 225) At this point, the L3 doesn’t matter because the brain is already doing the work. A student could be studying 3-5 languages and experience the same issues of codeswitching, perhaps involuntarily or without noticing. “Multicompetence, defining it as ‘the compound state of mind with two grammars’” (Edwards & Dewaele, 225). Our students are becoming multicompetent:

“Multicompetence should not be perceived as a fixed idea, end-state but rather as a dynamic, ever-evolving system:…one could compare the languages in contact in the individual’s mind to two liquid colours that blend unevenly…multicompetence should be seen as a never-ending, complex, nonlinear dynamic process in speaker’s mind…a change in the linguistic input, may cause widespread restructuring with some ‘islands’ remaining in their original state” (Edwards & Dewaele, 225).

Cedden and Simsek’s 2014 study “aims to investigate whether the representation of a third language in the mind leads to differences compared to bilinguals and whether knowledge of a third language provides an advantage in executive control processes” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 559). Participants were given “a language control demanding task and participants’ response times (RTs) and the accuracy of their responses were analyzed in order to determine where there is a difference between bi- and trilinguals and whether this difference might be attributed to the executive control processes.” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 559).“A third language system represented in the mind has the effect of promoting experience or regulation costs of the executive control system which might lead to the development of a more sophisticated and balanced language control system” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 566). The opportunities for transfer to a different discipline increase as the number of languages goes up. The cognitive demands that new languages place on students increases their cognitive supply.

“The course of a monolingual communication and to switch back and forth between the languages during a bilingual communication is referred as ‘language control’ and ‘language selection’” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 558). “Investigating the effect of known language on executive control processes are mostly conducted with mono- and bilinguals so as to explore whether and which executive control processes are influenced when a non-native language is added to the language repertoire.” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 558).

Learning a New Vowel System

This case study focuses on who the language is coming from: caregiver vs. parents vs. teachers. “Simultaneous and consecutive bilinguals are able to keep their vowel categories distinct cross-linguistically” (Mayr & Montanari, 1). “Children’s patterns are predominantly a result of cross-linguistic interactions. Such interactions have been widely documented for bilingual vowel systems. What the present study adds is a preliminary glimpse at the complexity involved when speakers have to handle three vowel systems” (Mayr & Montanari, 4).

This should be seen as an opportunity to expose children to two additional vowel systems in first grade and observe, document and analyze their productions in terms of pronunciation, production, and listening comprehension. If CSS spent a year self-studying the Spanish students in K-5, the students would make tremendous linguistic gains and we could have our own data set and research on their vowel pronunciation and language acquisition.

Methods of measuring success

Britain’s Model of Multilingual Exposure

In 1997, 27% of elementary schools (surveyed in Pufahl, I. and Rhodes, N. 2011 study) taught French. In 2008, that number decreased to 11%. By offering French in our elementary school, we become part of a small, desirable group of schools that offers French in our K-5 program. Examining Britain’s model of exposure, students are exposed to various different languages: French, Spanish, German, Russian, Punjabi, Polish, Cantonese, Tamil, Mandarin, Latin, Esperanto, and British Sign Language. Students are exposed to these various languages for the first three years of study. They then specialize in a language for a specific amount of time (language of the month/semester). This multilingual exposure approach gives students an opportunity to decide for themselves which language they would like to study. More importantly, it fosters a community of multicultural understanding and compassion.   


To measure our success, we must establish goals. Do we want to expose students to language or is the goal for our students to become competent and have the ability to communicate? We must first examine the affordances and constraints of an Exploratory Language Program, often called FLEX – foreign language experience/exploratory), versus a Language Focus Program, often called FLES – foreign language in the elementary school. See Pufahl and Rhodes’ definitions below:

The ACTFL’s first recommendation in their 2012 report is to “set foreign language enrollment and education standards to make American students competitive with students from other nations” (ACTFL, 6). They compare foreign language enrollments in American public schools with French schools, “in France, public school students often receive as much as six years of foreign language instruction compared to the two years received by most American public school students who actually study a foreign language” (ACTFL, 7). They implore that schools enroll students in foreign language courses as early as possible, “research studies have continued to demonstrate that children learn languages best when they begin studying at a younger age (e.g., Birdsong, 1990: DeKeyser, 2000; Piske, MacKay, & Flege, 2001; Tomasello, 2003).”

Bilingual vs. Tri/Multilingual Success

“Trilinguals (like bilinguals) are able to select and recombine elements from their three languages in what can be described as ‘creative’ ways” (Edwards, M. & Dewaele, J., 225). “Patterns we identify in the use of three languages in our subjects suggest that trilinguals display different forms of multicompetence, rather than specifically bilingual and trilingual forms of competence.” (Edwards, M. & Dewaele, J., 226). “While the trilingual group did not show any difference in RTs in their three languages…the results indicate that the bilinguals experienced more difficulties respond in the language required and understanding the content of the question than the trilinguals” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 564).

“Trilingual participants…outperformed the bilinguals in providing more accurate responses” this might tell us that “the language control mechanism does function in a more balanced manner in the trilingual group” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 565). “Bilinguals develop enhanced cognitive control mechanisms compared to monolingual children…trilingualism might have the potential to be counted as an experience improving the executive control mechanism” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 565). “The results of the quantitative data show that the bilingual participants failed more often in responding the target language than the trilingual participants but were accurate in terms of content” (Cedden, and Simsek, S., 565). Trilingualism does not change the bilingual inhibitory control advantage in children and young adults. Trilingualism doesn’t create adverse effects. “Trilinguals and bilinguals outperformed monolinguals on the flanker task, but there were no differences between trilinguals and bilinguals, suggesting no additional gains in trilinguals.” (Schroeder & Marian, 9). “Trilingualism did not increase inhibitory demands beyond the demands of bilingualism” (Schroeder & Marian, 9). “While trilingualism does not appear to provide an extra benefit to inhibitory control in children and young adults, it remains possible that trilingualism has an additional effect in older adults.” (Schroeder & Marian, 10).

“Trilingual older adults may have more cognitive reserve than bilingual older adults because trilingualism increases the demands placed on memory and executive processes, leading to a corresponding supply increase.” (Schroeder & Marian, 14).

If we do not take advantage of the incredibly fertile brains that young children have for language learning, we would be doing them a disservice. The research indicates that the later a student begins language study, the more difficult the grammar, language concepts, and pronunciation will be for that student.


ACTFL (2012). Foreign Language Enrollments in K-12 Public Schools: Are Students Prepared for a Global Society? ACTFL, 1-10.

Athanasopoulos et al. (2010). Representation of colour concepts in bilingual cognition: The case of Japanese blues.

Carvalho, A., Freire, J., da Silva, A. (2010). Teaching Portuguese to Spanish Speakers: A Case for Trilingualism. Hispania, 93.1, 70-75.  

Cedden, G. and Simsek, S. (2014). The impact of a third language on the executive control processes. International Journal of Bilingualism. 18(6) 558-569.  

Dagenais, D. and Day, E. (1998). Classroom Language Experiences of Trilingual Children in French Immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 53, 3, 376-393.

Edwards, M. & Dewaele, J. (2007). Trilingual conversations: A window into multicompetence. International Journal of Bilingualism, 11(2), 221-242.

Hoffmann, C. and Stavans, A. (2007). The evolution of trilingual codeswitching from infancy to school age: The shaping of trilingual competence through dynamic language dominance.International Journal of Bilingualism, 11(1), 55-72.

Mayr, R. and Montanari, S. (2014). Differentiation and interaction in the vowel productions of trilingual children. Cardiff Metropolitan University, 1-5.

Poarch, J. and van Hell, J. (2012). Cross-language activation in children’s speech production: Evidence from second language learners, bilinguals, and trilinguals. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 111 (2012),419-438.

Poarch, J. and van Hell, J. (2012). Executive functions and inhibitory control in multilingual children: Evidence from second-language learners, bilinguals, and trilinguals. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 113 (2012), 535-551.

Pufahl, I. and Rhodes, N. (2011). Foreign  Language Instruction in U.S. Schools: Results of a National Survey of Elementary and Secondary Schools. Foreign Language Annals, Summer 2011, 258-288.

Schroeder, S. and Marian, V. (2016). Cognitive consequences of trilingualism. International Journal of Bilingualism, 1-19.  


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