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Do Bilingual Students have Greater Metalinguistic Awareness?

Main Reference:

Ter Kuile, H., Veldhuis, M., Van Veen, S. C., & Wicherts, J. M. (2011). Bilingual education, metalinguistic awareness, and the understanding of an unknown language. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 14(02), 233-242.


The main questions that the researchers focused on was whether bilingual students had greater metalinguistic awareness, and if they did have greater metalinguistic awareness, whether this greater metalinguistic awareness would help with understanding a new language. Metalinguistic awareness is the understanding that language is a communication system that has rules and has a variety of different applications. Previous research has indicated that compared to monolinguals, bilingual children have a greater metalinguistic awareness (Ransdell, Barbier & Niit, 2006; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). In addition, previous research has found that bilinguals have better cognitive development, thinking ability, and attention control than monolingual children (Bialystok, McBride-Chang & Luk, 2005).

The researchers in this study wanted to test the hypothesis from Thomas (1988) suggesting that being fluent in more languages leads to better metalinguistic awareness than being fluent in only one language, which leads to bilinguals having a better understanding of an unfamiliar language. The researchers hypothesized that metalinguistic awareness is necessary to answer questions on a test designed to measure new language acquisition in participants who speak Indo-European languages – the Indonesian Language Test (ILT), and they made two predictions: 1) Bilinguals would outperform monolinguals on the ILT, and 2) Scores on the ILT would be related to other language skill tests.


The researchers tested their hypothesis on 304 third-year high school students across five schools in different cities across the western part of the Netherlands. All subjects were either in bilingual (Dutch- or English-taught classes) or monolingual (Dutch-taught classes) programs in the two highest levels of difficulty and requirements – the highest level is the Gymnasium with a curriculum including French, German, Latin, and classical Greek, while the second highest level is Atheneum with a curriculum including only French and German. This gave rise to four conditions: bilingual Gymnasium students, monolingual Gymnasium students, bilingual Atheneum students, and monolingual Atheneum students.

Four tests were used: the English Language Usage Test, the Dutch Language Usage Test (DLT), the Indonesian Language Test (ILT), and the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices Test. In the English Language Usage Test (ELT), students had five minutes to find grammatical errors in 15 sentences separated in four sections. The format of the Dutch Language Test (DLT) was exactly like the ELT. For both the ELT and the DLT, the lowest possible score was 0 and the highest possible score was 15. In the Indonesian Language Test (ILT), the participants were given 15 minutes to read a 180-word story written in Indonesian in which 28 bolded words in the story were defined in Dutch. The participants then answered 15 questions about the text regarding content, grammar, and structure. The questions were weighted, ranging from 0 to 2 points a question, with the lowest possible score being 0 and the highest possible score being 20.5. The average score between three independent raters was recorded. The participants had 10 minutes to do the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices was used to measure general intelligence as a control by testing their ability to use logical reasoning to analyze patterns in matrices


The results from the study indicate that bilinguals have a greater ability to acquire an unfamiliar language than monolinguals, and the results seem to suggest that education in bilingual settings gives the students an advantage in understanding the facets of language. Since the results for the ILT test matched the researchers’ predictions that students who were exposed to more languages would have higher test scores, this suggests that the ILT is a good measure of metalinguistic awareness contributing to the ability to understand a new language. The researchers interpreted marginally higher DLT scores by bilinguals compared to monolinguals as an indication that becoming fluent in multiple languages increases proficiency in the first language. The results found in this study agreed with previous research on bilingual metalinguistic awareness and language acquisition cited above, as well. Although this experiment did not focus on cognitive development, there was no evidence of increased cognitive development in bilinguals as compared to monolinguals.

This study’s results do not necessarily reflect new data in the field of bilingual language acquisition; however, it contributes to bilingual language acquisition research in that it confirms some previous research and contradicts other previous studies. The results of the study agree with previous studies suggesting increased metalinguistic awareness in bilinguals (Campbell & Sais, 1995; Ransdell, Barbier & Niit, 2006). It also agrees with a study suggesting that learning a second language actually improves language skills in the first language rather than being harmful for fluency of the mother language (Griessler, 2001). On the other hand, the lack of difference in cognitive abilities contradicts the study by Bialystok, McBride-Chang and Luk (2005), which found a positive correlation between bilingualism and cognitive development in children. Since this was a point of contention, perhaps there need to be more experiments focused on determining whether bilingualism predicts greater cognitive development. This study has also been cited by multiple other experiments involving bilingual metalinguistic awareness and language education.


Bialystok, E., McBride-Chang, C., & Luk, G. (2005). Bilingualism, language proficiency, and learning to read in two writing systems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 580-590.

Campbell, R., & Sais, E. (1995). Accelerated metalinguistic (phonological) awareness in bilingual children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 13, 61-68.

Griessler, M. (2001). The effects of third language learning on second language proficiency: An Austrian example. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4, 50-59.

Ransdell, S., Barbier, M., & Niit, T. (2006). Metacognitions about language skill and working memory among monolingual and bilingual college students: When does multilingualism matter? The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9, 728-741.

Ter Kuile, H., Veldhuis, M., Van Veen, S. C., & Wicherts, J. M. (2011). Bilingual education, metalinguistic awareness, and the understanding of an unknown language. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 14(02), 233-242.

Thomas, J. (1988). The role played by metalinguistic awareness in second and third language learning. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 9, 235-246.

Whitehurst, G. J., & Lonigan, C. J. (1998). Child development and emergent literacy. Child Development, 68, 848- 872.

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