Bilingualism Matters is a research and information centre at the University founded by Professor Antonella Sorace. Studying bilingualism and language learning over the lifespan, it has branches around Europe and the US, and believes everyone can enjoy the benefits of having more than one language.
Professor Antonella Sorace’s show, ‘In praise of useless languages’ is part of the 2017 Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. We spoke to Antonella about her show.
Can you explain a little bit about the show- what can people expect to see at it? Will it surprise them? Is there really any point in studying useless or ‘dying’ languages?
The point is that there are no ‘useless languages’ from the perspective of the brain - and yes, this comes as a surprise for many people. A common view is that languages are worth learning only if they are instrumentally useful - because they are prestigious, they are spoken by many people, they can ‘open doors’ in terms of employment, etc. But the message that is emerging from research on bilingualism is that what matters is having more than one language in the brain, regardless of which languages. The experience of juggling more than one language can give mental flexibility at all ages and can ’open the mind’ in many different ways. This means that minority languages have not only a deep cultural and linguistic value, but also should be seen as a rich resource and a real opportunity for the people who speak them.
What would you say are the main challenges in this area of research? How does the Bilingualism Matters centre help?
Research on minority languages is challenging for two reasons: first, many of these languages are disappearing because they are learned by fewer and fewer children; second, it is more difficult to collect data and run experiments in isolated places. Bilingualism Matters, and our School at the University of Edinburgh, are one of the best places in the world for the study of bilingualism; so we can rely on collaborations on a wide international scale that allow us to study minority languages in scientifically rigorous ways. The Centre also aims to bridge the gap between research and people in different sectors of society, enabling them to make informed decisions that are based on facts, rather than misconceptions. We actively work with many minority language communities and speakers to achieve these goals.
What would you like your audience to take away with them from the show? What do you think are the most important elements or findings of the centre’s research in this area so far?
Based on some results of our research on Gaelic and Sardinian, I will show that bilingualism with minority languages benefits the mind of both children and older adults. But the details are a surprise!
Is the centre hopeful about their aims? Will more people be bilingual in the future? Will endangered languages be saved?
There are many strong economic and political forces in a globalised world that play against the maintenance of language diversity. However, at Bilingualism Matters we believe in the value of research and in the power of information. So yes, we are hopeful that, at least in the short to medium term, many languages have a better chance of surviving if we empower people with information that will motivate them to speak them, teach them, and pass them on to the next generation.
Why a festival show?
Because it’s fun and useful for both presenters and audiences!
In Praise of Useless Languages will take place on Monday 14th August at 1350 at the New Town Theatre