Does Bilingualism Make You a Bad Writer?

Dear Korean,

One of my friends mentioned to me recently that children who grow up bilingual (like me and many other Asian-Americans) usually aren't strong writers. I'm not talking about 1.5 generation kids who had their childhood all in one language, or the ones who completely didn't learn their parents' language at all, but kids like me who were born in America and went to school which was taught in English, but came home and spoke only Korean in the house. And this happened ever since I was born. I wonder if its true... that something about not fully grasping one language before learning another actually makes both language a bit mediocre. I'm not sure if its true or not, but I kind of hope its true because that would be a great excuse for me.

Lara B.

Dear Lara,

Your question jumped the line because a recent New York Times article on bilingualism research was particularly relevant for the answer. Here is a sample:
As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language.

But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.


We wondered, “Are bilinguals better at multitasking?” So we put monolinguals and bilinguals into a driving simulator. Through headphones, we gave them extra tasks to do — as if they were driving and talking on cellphones. We then measured how much worse their driving got. Now, everybody’s driving got worse. But the bilinguals, their driving didn’t drop as much.


People e-mail me and say, “I’m getting married to someone from another culture, what should we do with the children?” I always say, “You’re sitting on a potential gift.”

There are two major reasons people should pass their heritage language onto children. First, it connects children to their ancestors. The second is my research: Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise.
The Bilingual Advantage [New York Times]

So yeah, the Korean would say your friend is totally off base. Bilingualism is a gift, and it makes you better at everything that requires brain power.

As for the Korean himself, being a bilingual helps tremendously toward being a good writer. In the Korean's humble opinion, a lot of beginning writers struggle with perceiving how their writing comes across. They intend to write something, but what they actually put down on the paper ends up not quite sounding like what they intended -- could be too soft, too harsh, too dry, too emotional, etc. (It really does not help that the Internet allows people to write without any sort of training or reflection.) It requires a great deal of self-awareness in order to "hear" your own writing and precisely calibrate the tone and strength of your writing.

In that sense, it is really great to have one language become the meta-language for the other. Because the Korean is constantly shifting back and forth between two languages, he can evaluate, say, the emotional content of what he wrote by trying to phrase what he wrote in the other language. In fact, if you are a budding bilingual, the Korean would highly recommend this exercise that he used to do as a teenager: write a short poem in one of the languages, and write the exact same poem in the other language -- matching not simply the meaning of the words, but imagery, symbolism, emotional evocation, meter and rhyme.

This game is unbelievably difficult, and you will likely not succeed. (The Korean himself has never succeeded, although he thought he came close in one or two tries.) But doing the process itself will force you to assess your strengths and weaknesses in the two languages, peer into the meta-conversation behind the messages and appreciate the different cultures surrounding the two languages. The Korean can hardly think of a more beneficial brain exercise than this.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at