Research and Knowledge Exchange

Evidencing a social enterprise to help people with dementia access foreign language learning

Using research on the benefits of bilingualism, a new Scottish social enterprise has been established to provide older adults with dementia with tailored foreign language workshops.

Lingo Flamingo participants enjoy their language class

The Project

Lingo Flamingo is a social enterprise providing tailored foreign language workshops to vulnerable and older adults. It was established in 2014 by Robbie Norval, a former lawyer whose interest in languages was sparked during a period teaching English in Germany and Scandinavia.

As well as making foreign languages more accessible to people with a range of mental health issues, the organisation aims to help people with dementia. The thinking behind this is twofold: the social aspect of language learning can help tackle loneliness and isolation; and evidence suggests that speaking multiple languages can delay the onset of dementia by up to five years, as well as helping with decision-making, multitasking, concentration and communication.

The importance of the media in communicating research to industry

Lingo Flamingo’s work on dementia is underpinned by a study of 648 people, of whom almost 400 were bilingual. Supported by the Indian Department of Science and Technology, the research was led by Professor Suvarna Alladi (then based at based at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderaba, India) and Dr Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh.

Published in Neurology in November 2013, the study instantly attracted widespread press interest, generating multiple print and broadcast interviews and articles. Together with coverage of Thomas Bak’s study of 262 bilingual older people in Scotland, published the following year, this media exposure played a key role in bringing the research to the attention of charities and service providers, such as the Alzheimer’s Society and Lingo Flamingo.

Evaluating current work and co-designing future streams

While Lingo Flamingo has been using the research since 2014, Robbie Norval and Thomas Bak did not actually meet until 2015, when they were introduced through a mutual contact. Once made, however, the connection quickly led to Thomas being invited to speak at the project’s official launch, where Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, delivered the keynote address and guests took part in language sessions led by refugees and international students.

With support from Alzheimer Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, Bak and colleagues are currently working on a pilot study to test the feasibility of evaluating Lingo Flamingo’s work, measuring the cognitive effects of language learning on older adults. A joint exhibition stand at the Alzheimer Scotland annual conference in June 2016 has led to plans to extend the language courses to people with dementia living in the community, following interest and feedback from conference delegates.

The partnership with the University of Edinburgh has allowed us to help measure the social impact of our classes. They provide us with the expertise to research the cognitive impact that language learning has on older adults

Robbie NorvalFounder, Lingo Flamingo


Dr Thomas Bak, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences


Lingo Flamingo