Cross-Linguistic Transfer

When learning a foreign language, we may discover that the sounds and letters of a completely new language seem familiar and the meaning of the words is quite easy to guess. Language learners may explain it by their good learning strategies or pure luck, but researchers and educators know exactly what stands behind this phenomenon — it all happens because of cross-linguistic transfer.

But what exactly is cross-linguistic transfer? The answers of researches differ. While some believe cross-linguistic transfer to be a process of transferring person’s specific knowledge from one language to another, others explain it as a phenomenon that launches much deeper cognitive mechanisms that underlie all language processes. In any case, the outcomes of cross-linguistic transfer are well-seen in real-life experiences of language learners. It is cross-linguistic transfer that is responsible for helping language learners to recognise and make sense of separate sounds, syllables, and words in the oral speech of a foreign language. It is also cross-linguistic transfer that makes reading in a foreign language easier because a person’s existent knowledge of a script, principles of word and sentence composition, vocabulary, and general strategies of reading comprehension, such as decoding the unknown words and concluding about their meaning based on the contextual information, are transferred between languages that a person knows and learns.

What is interesting to note is that not only language speakers of close languages, like English and German can benefit from cross-linguistic transfer, which for them is manifested in the ability to easily recognise letters because of the similar alphabets, compose words because of the matching word-construction principles, and build sentences because of the close grammatical rules. In many aspects, the transfer occurs also between typologically different languages, like English and Chinese. For example, English-Chinese bilingual children are advanced in the identification of sounds in both languages, which is crucial for word differentiation and ultimately reading. All of this can happen because of deep underlying processes that are shared among different languages. Altogether, cross-linguistic transfer is a complex phenomenon thanks to which bilingual language learners and speakers can operate their languages with more ease.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power, and pedagogy:
Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Cognitive Advantages of Being Bilingual

Learning new languages brings numerous benefits for a child. Bilingualism opens many opportunities in life, including the access to valuable information in other languages which helps to build a rich knowledge base, the possibility to connect to more people and forge personal, social, and professional relationships, the privilege of having a better position in the job market that leads to financial success, and finally, the valuable opportunity to develop an open-minded personality from the contact with different cultures through languages. Apart from these apparent benefits, being bilingual brings one more set of advantages that are not as tangible as the enumerated ones but have a crucial impact on the bilingual’s development—cognitive advantages.

Research has shown that bilingualism positively influence a very important set child’s mental skills, called executive function, that help the child to keep information in mind (working memory), resist irrelevant stimuli (inhibition), and adjust and switch to new goals (cognitive flexibility). Numerous studies demonstrate that bilingual children are able to switch to new goals, adjust to new rules, and keep their attention away from the previous tasks faster than monolingual children. That is why bilingual children can complete complex tasks more accurately and efficiently than monolinguals.

What is impressive is that higher cognitive performance of bilinguals is traced from as early as the very first year of child’s life. This means that even those children who do not speak several languages themselves but are exposed to them can benefit from the enhancement of cognitive skills. In other words, from a very early age, bilingualism boosts child’s mental flexibility, concentration, and memory—the skills that are essential for child’s mind development.


As a result, the cognitive advantages of being bilingual have several key manifestations. Bilingualism can help to achieve better academic performance and can positively impact child’s intelligence because of well-trained working memory and inhibition. Moreover, knowing several languages develops bilingual children’s’ mind in a way to be flexible in processing information. This allows bilinguals to see issues from different angles that eventually boosts creativity and problem-solving. Finally, by developing the ability to resist irrelevant stimuli, bilingual children learn self-control, leading to the ability to regulate emotions and make informed decisions. Put together, bilingualism is a gift.

Bialystok, E. (2017). The bilingual adaptation:
How minds accommodate experience. Psychological Bulletin, 143(3), 233-262.

Ask a question