Chapter 7

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Acquiring a second language?

Ever wondered what effects does a second language has on your cognitive processes and on your first language?

Read on to know more about them!


For many years, it was believed that knowing more than one language would lead to negative consequences such as mental retardation. However, research done by Peal and Lambert (1962) revealed that being bilingual can bring about positive benefits and outcomes. First language, or L1, is defined as the language that an individual acquires first and is usually equivalent to the native language mainly used in one’s community (Matthews, 2014). In the same way, second language is defined as the language that an individual acquires subsequent to their native language (Matthews, 2014), and is sometimes referred to as the foreign language or L2. Multilinguals, who are individuals that know more than one language, outnumber monolinguals in the world. More specifically, we will be referring them as bilinguals since we are focusing on acquisition of a second language.

Charlemagne, the great medieval ruler, once proclaimed that “to have a second language is to have a second soul” (Dold, 2011). That is, by acquiring a second language, new thought processes are created within an individual. Consequently, the direction of much research has been to investigate the effect of the L2 on one’s cognitive processes. The correlation between the two variables – L2 and cognitive processes, can be demonstrated by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which was devised and coined by Hoijer (1954). The hypothesis states that language either determines or influences our cognitive thoughts and the ability to form conceptions of the world, with the former being the strong view and the latter being the weak view of the hypothesis. This thus leads to the question – with the addition of an L2, and the knowledge that comes with it, how would one’s cognitive ability be affected?

Parents, as well as potential second language learners, often express concern about acquiring a second language – whether it would have any effects on one’s L1. That is, would the cognitive load be too much for one to handle and would the acquisition of a second language be detrimental to the individual’s L1?

There has been extensive research done regarding these topics, such that interested readers are often overwhelmed with several differing opinions and conflicting evidence regarding the effects of second language acquisition on thought and language. Thus, this WikiChapter hopes to provide a clearer picture for readers through the summaries of relevant literature, as well as a general discussion of the implications of the findings.

This WikiChapter would be focusing on two main bodies of the topic. They are, specifically, how the acquisition of a second language may affect our cognitive processes, and how it may affect our first language.

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Cognitive processes

Extensive research has been done on the cognitive benefits of acquiring a second language (Nicolay & Poncelet, 2013; Lauchlan, Parisi & Fadda, 2013; Blom, Küntay, Messer, Verhagen & Leseman, 2014). For instance, bilinguals have been found to have advantages over monolinguals in executive function tasks, such as dealing with ambiguities (Bialystok & Shapero, 2005), conflict resolution (Costa, Hernández, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2008; Costa, Hernández, Costa-Faidella, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2009) and decision bias tasks. In the paragraphs below, second language acquisition effects on different aspects of cognition will be discussed.


Several studies have investigated if bilinguals and monolinguals have different concepts in their minds. Concepts that have been investigated include, shape and material (Imai, & Gentner, 1997; Cook, Bassetti, Kasai, Sasaki, Takahashi, 2006), colour boundaries (Davidoff, Davies, & Roberson, 1999) and characteristics of inanimate objects (Boroditsky, Schmidt, & Phillips, 2003).

One study examined the concepts of Japanese speakers – whether they are affected or modified by the acquisition of English as an L2, particularly for shape and material (Cook, Bassetti, Kasai, Sasaki, Takahashi, 2006). The hypothesis was that Japanese L1 speakers would categorise shape and material differently, depending on whether they had English as an L2. The things they had to categorise includes complex objects, which are factory-made artefacts having complex shapes and specific functions (e.g., a ceramic lemon squeezer); simple objects – simple shapes made out of a solid material (e.g., a pyramid made out of cork) and substances, that is, non-solid materials arranged in a simple shape (e.g. Nivea cream laid in a reverse C shape).

The hypothesis was supported by findings from the study: Japanese speakers with English as an L2 had a stronger bias for shapes over materials in the classification of complex objects and a stronger bias for materials in the classification of simple objects and substances. Simple objects were also construed differently by speakers of different languages, reinforcing the findings from Imai and Gentner’s study. In addition, the study suggests that language specific mass or count distinctions result in differences in the classification of simple objects, suggesting an intricate link between language and concepts. Findings support the multi-competence hypothesis as well, which refers to the hypothesis that L2 users possess a new conceptual system, distinct from L1 users. This new conceptual system is one whereby elements from both languages of the L2 user are integrated. Hence, the Japanese-English L2 users’ concepts of shapes and materials seem to be restructured due to L2 acquisition.

However, it is important to note that findings from this study has limitations due to the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Though the study presented positive findings on the link between L2 and concepts, it was not clear whether a linguistic device was created by a pre-existing concept to represent it, or whether it was the linguistic device that creates the concept. Hence, future studies ought to clarify this issue, while reinforcing the findings of this study.

In addition, another way in which the L2 could impact one’s cognitive concepts is in the aspect of metalinguistic awareness. Studies have shown that learning a second language helps in increasing metalinguistic awareness as it allows one to experience more than one language. As such, learners of second language have increased ability to compare one language system with another. They are more likely to understand the (arbitrary, rather than fixed) relationship between the form of a word and its meaning (Fernandez, 2007). This helps learners become more perceptive and analytical in a language, increasing their flexibility when dealing with foreign languages.

These findings regarding effect of L2 acquisition on cognitive concepts were significant due to the potential impact on L2 users. If further studies continue to reinforce these findings, it would translate into different cognition models for L2 users and possibly change the perceptions of the relationship between language and cognition (Cook et al., 2006).

Conflict Resolution

Bilinguals were generally found to perform better than monolinguals in conflict resolution and goal maintenance tasks (Costa, Hernández, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2008; Costa, Hernández, Costa-Faidella, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2009). Created by Stroop (1992), the stroop task was often employed to measure individuals’ ability of inhibitory control and is used to demonstrate conflict resolution, as elaborated in the following paragraphs:

The stroop task requires participants to name the ink color of given words which could either be congruent or incongruent with the colors that are being spelled (i.e. the word red could be printed in red or yellow ink). The video below illustrates this:

Participants were to inhibit the information of the letters itself, and focus mainly on the ink color. The reaction time and accuracy of the response were taken into account. It was found that bilinguals are better at these tasks (Heidlmayr, Moutier, Hemforth, Courtin, Tanzmeister, & Isel, 2014; Tse, & Altarriba, 2012) and this is often explained by the fact that bilinguals have to be consistently aware of the language they are using. With the need to inhibit irrelevant information from the other language they know, individuals’ cognitive control is constantly being exercised (Linck, Schwieter & Sunderman, 2012).

In addition, the proficiency level of L1 and L2 has been found to play a role in one’s conflict resolution and goal maintenance. Tse and Altarriba (2012) reported that bilinguals respond faster in stroop tasks as their proficiency levels increase. This suggests that with a higher proficiency level in one’s language ability, individuals develop a better ability in goal maintenance and conflict resolution.

Thus, the knowledge of two or more languages aids in the ability of conflict resolution. Above that, the proficiency level of the language actually affects that ability and with a higher proficiency, individuals are found to improve for conflict resolution tasks. In the next section, we will discuss on the effects of L2 on another aspect of cognition – judgement and decision making.

Judgement and Decision Making

According to Keysar, Hayakawa and An’s study (2012), there are two opposing theories regarding how L2 affects decision making. On one hand, the ‘decreased systematicity’ theory states that the difficulty of L2 acquisition and usage increases cognitive load, reducing reliance on more systematic cognitive processes for the user. This in turn, causes reliance on affective and intuitive cognitive processes to increase, thereby aggravating certain decision biases. On the other hand, the ‘increased systematicity’ theory proposed that the L2 would reduce affective processes and reduce emotional responses, thereby increasing reliance on analytic processes for decision making. This is due to the L2 being less grounded in the emotion system as compared to the L1, particularly since the L2 is less automatically processed as compared to the L1. Hence, this theory proposes that the effect of decision biases are reduced when using an L2.

In Keysar, Hayakawa and An’s study (2012), some relevant findings were presented with regard to these two theories. In their study, bilingual participants with different L1s and L2s were selected for each experiment (within each experiment itself, participants shared the same L1 and L2). In Experiment 1, participants’ risk preferences were investigated to see if they changed depending on whether the experiment was conducted in their L1 or L2. Participants were presented with identical problems in Experiment 1, modified from the original “Asian disease” problem. The original problem gave participants two options: use Medicine A to save 200,000 people, or use Medicine B, which has a 33.3% chance to save 600,000 people and a 66.6% chance that none would be saved. When faced with such a problem, participants often show risk aversion in the domain of gains, but become risk-seeking in the domain of losses. For example, participants would rather choose Medicine A than risk saving no lives at all. However, if the choice was framed in terms of lives lost, participants tend to become risk-seeking. Hence, the effect of L2, if any, was investigated with regard to this reversal in risk preferences. Experiments 2 and 3 investigated related issues on loss aversion (the tendency to prefer avoiding losses as oppose to acquiring gains) and consequential investment behaviour, tweaking the original problem to better fit into the selected scope.

Interestingly, the results from all of the experiments generally support the ‘increased systematicity’ theory. Participants demonstrated an increased reliance on systematic processes when making decisions in their L2 as compared to decision-making in their L1. The possible reason for this is that L2 usage weakens emotional responses and reactions, making choices more comparable across their gains and losses. This L2 effect is also observed to occur across the experiments, regardless of what the L1 or L2 of the user was, and regardless of the context – whether the participants were in their native country or not.

The findings of this study result in two important implications. Firstly, since L2 usage can result in a systematic effect, it may be necessary to note if participants are using their L2 during a study. This would have implications on the results of the study, or could be a potential confounding factor that affects the effectiveness of the results obtained. Secondly, people can consider using their L2 for decisions regarding areas such as savings, retirement, investments since L2 usage would lead them to be more systematic and analytic in their thinking process, while reducing any decision biases caused by their affective cognitive processes.

In the next section, the article will move on from L2 effects on cognition to L2 effects on language, or more specifically, the L1.

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There has been increasing research done on the effects of second language (L2) acquisition on the native or first language (L1) in recent years (Albirini, & Benmamoun, 2014; Landry, & Allard, 1993; Mehrabi, 2014; Talebi, 2014; Zaretsky, 2014). Research done on this scope, generally focus on the two main views of bilingualism, as well as language transfer, which is the occurrence of one’s language knowledge affecting another language that one possesses.

Subtractive and Additive Bilingualism

The two main views towards bilingualism are, specifically, subtractive bilingualism and additive bilingualism.

Subtractive bilingualism is the perception that the acquisition of L2 would be detrimental to an individual’s L1. This can be caused by the increased cognitive load due to L2 acquisition which consequently decreases competence in users’ L1. This phenomenon is found to be experienced by minority groups, especially when they are not schooled in their L1 (Lambert, 1975). With the frequent usage of their L2, their L1 competence and culture is gradually replaced by the L2.

Opposing this view is, additive bilingualism which suggests that the acquisition of L2 is not detrimental to one’s L1, but is in fact, beneficial to the language user. The term “additive” is used as it portrays an addition to one’s language repertoire. That is, even while learning a second language, one’s first language skills and culture remains valued. Thus, additive bilingualism is seen as the main goal of bilingual education. Total additive bilingualism occurs when one is highly proficient in both the cognitive-academic aspect and communication in both their L1 and L2. Total additive bilingualism is also said to be achieved when one is consistently able to hold onto, and remain positive, in their L1 culture whilst possessing the same attitude towards their L2 (Landry & Allard, 1993).

In addition, Landry and Allard (1993) found that additive bilingualism usually occurs when one’s L1 is of a higher status in the community as compared to the L2. As the L1 is of high status, the community would continue using it in daily activities and thus, it is less likely for one to lose their L1 as well as its culture while acquiring the L2. In most cases, unless one’s L1 is a minority language, additive bilingualism will occur and thus, would bring benefits in both language and cognitive aspects (as mentioned earlier).

Language Transfer

Language transfer as explained before, refers to how speakers or writers apply their knowledge of one language to another language. This effect can be bi-directional, that is, 1) the individual may apply knowledge from their native language (L1) in the acquisition of their second language (forward transfer), or 2) the second language (L2) can bring effect onto the first language (backward transfer). Given that we are exploring the effects of second language  on language, we will be focusing our discussion on backward transfer.

Although the research on the influence of second language on first language are far from being extensive, there are still some research done on this topic. Xin (2014) investigated this topic by observing the effect of English causal clause on the Chinese causal clause. Participants chosen for the study had Chinese as their L1 and English as their L2. Basically, causal relations are expressed differently in English (because, as, since, so) and Chinese (因为… 所以…). Furthermore, it is forbidden to use two connectives in English, but this is permitted in Chinese. Findings suggest the existence of backward transfer but only in conditions where participants’ second language proficiency level has yet to reach the “critical threshold”. This phenomenon occurs when individuals try to restructure the linguistic structure of their native language in hope to simplify the learning process and behave more like a native speaker (Ellis, 1985, as cited in Xin, 2014) .

Similar findings of the existence of backward transfer were found in the study done by Mehrabi (2014). In her study, the influence of second language writing ability on first language writing ability was explored. Participants were Persian native speakers with half of them being English majors and the other half studying nursing. All participants were to go through a pretest and posttest procedure with them writing in their first language on a topic given to them. Following which, English major participants were to go through an English course in writing. After passing the course, all participants were then asked to write a passage in their native language again. Findings demonstrate that participants performed similarly in pretest condition but after going through the English course, English major participants wrote better in their native language. This indicates that even though participants only attended a L2 writing course, the knowledge helped them in the development of their L1 skills and writing ability.

Evidently, the acquisition of a second language has effects on one’s first language. In both studies, it is shown that there is language transfer from one’s L2 knowledge and skills to their native language skills.

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This WikiChapter summarized and gave an overview on how the acquisition of a second language would affect an individual’s cognitive and language aspects. In general, research show evidence of positive effects in the cognitive aspects, proposing that having knowledge of more than one language aids individuals in concept categorisation, conflict resolution and decision bias tasks, improving and altering their thought processes. Furthermore, in the language aspect, although there is a possibility of subtractive bilingualism occurring, additive bilingualism can result if one constantly uses and speaks their first language.  In addition, there have been extensive research done on language transfer from one’s L1 to L2 – using knowledge of L1 and applying them to better acquire the second language. Interestingly, it was also found that language transfer occurs in the other direction from L2 to L1, bringing about positive effects on one’s first language skills.

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First created by Grace Chia Xin Yi, Lo Jia Yi Erin, Ho Sin Yan, AY2014/15 Semester 1