Bilingualism: what about dialects?

Commonly, when thinking about bilingualism our first thought goes to people who grew up in a family speaking more than one standard language… But how about the case of people who use both a standard language, such as English or Italian, as well as a local dialect? This is a very common situation in many countries around the world.

From the linguistic point of view, regional dialects are just as rich and complex as standard languages, even if, in many cases, they have similar vocabularies, grammars, and sounds. But from a historical and administrative point of view, standard languages and dialects have very different statuses, and this is often reflected in the different contexts in which each is used. For example, the standard language may be encouraged at school while the local variant may be used in the home. This difference in statuses, together with the linguistic similarities, means that many people may overlook the bilingual experience of those who also speak a dialect. In other words, they are not considered bilingual at all.

In recent years, research on bilingualism has started to pay more attention to different factors impacting on linguistic experience, such as the quality of exposure to a language. As part of this trend, some researchers have started questioning whether bidialectalism (that is the bilingualism of a person speaking a national language and one or more regional dialects) is comparable to bilingualism. Specifically, researchers have asked whether bidialectalism affects school achievement, and whether it brings about comparable effects on cognitive agility and attention associated with bilingualism in other studies.

A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Cyprus examined the case of school children speaking both standard Greek and Cypriot Greek. These two languages are so similar that many people perceive Cypriot Greek as but a local variety of the national language. Nonetheless, the majority of Cypriot inhabitants can express themselves in both standard Greek and Cypriot Greek.

The researchers tested children of different ages (the average was 7 years and a half) on the tasks commonly used in research into the cognitive effects of bilingualism. These tests include measures of language, of general intelligence, short-term memory and attentional processes. Three groups of children were tested : 1) monolingual Greeks, attending monolingual schools on the Greek mainland 2) bilingual Greeks speaking both Greek and English, attending international schools on the mainland, and 3) bidialectal kids in Cyprus. The researchers then compared the results of the three groups with a fine-grained mathematical analysis.

They found that the group of bilingual children on the mainland had the best performance on tests of attention. What’s more, while bilinguals performed better than the two other groups, bidialectals performed better than monolinguals. This study therefore supports previous findings about positive effects on general abilities linked to bilingualism and suggests that these extend to the case of speakers of two similar languages – or dialects.

Another study by a pool of Norwegian researchers looked at the effects of using two closely related languages on school achievement. The interesting aspect of their research is that the dialectal variety they considered is only used for writing, and not for speaking. In Norwegian, there are two standard ways to write and read: one is called Bokmål, and it is the most widely used standard, and the other is called Nynorsk, which is less widely used. Broadly speaking, these two standards reflect different dialectal varieties of spoken Norwegian, with Bokmål mapping on the standard Oslo variety, and Nynorsk reflecting Western dialects. As a matter of fact, though, the different distribution of the two written standards means that Norwegians who are brought up using Nynorsk in school are also competent in Bokmål from very early on, while the reverse is not necessarily true. Nynorsk users therefore can be described as bidialectal.

This group of researchers analysed data collected by the government on examinations of school children. Data have been collected since 2004 and are grouped by borough. The researchers compared school results in boroughs where Nynorsk is used, with those where only Bokmål is used. They found that school results were better in the Nynorsk municipalities. Importantly, this difference remained even when researchers took into account other differences between the areas, such as overall education level, welfare measures and employment rate.

These two studies suggest that no matter how similar two languages are, and whether you only use them for speaking or writing: if you can use more than one language in everyday life and you are comfortable in expressing yourself in these languages, they do not hamper your achievements and, rather, they seem to represent a precious mental training.



Kyriakos Antoniou, Kleanthes K. Grohmann, Maria Kambanaros, Napoleon Katsos (2016): The effect of childhood bilectalism and multilingualism on executive control, Cognition, 149, 18-30.

Øystein A. Vangsnes, Göran B. W. Söderlund & Morten Blekesaune (2015): The effect of bidialectal literacy on school achievement, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 1-16.