The Bilingualism Matters research centre is showing that the ability to speak more than one language has many benefits beyond communication.
When Katarzyna Przybycien and her husband moved to Scotland in 2005 and had children, they, like most parents with different native languages, faced a dilemma: should they bring up their children speaking her Polish mother tongue or her husband Angel Morales-Aguilar’s Spanish language? And what about speaking English?
Fortunately, at this time, Katarzyna came across a leaflet published by the Bilingualism Matters research centre at the University of Edinburgh. The centre, which has received support from philanthropic donations to the University, researches language learning and provides advice on the latest studies into bilingualism on its website; information that reassured Katarzyna that letting her children learn both languages would actually help the development of their English – and bring them other benefits too.
Seeing how her children’s language development thrived over the next few years, Katarzyna later joined the Bilingualism Matters centre as a Research Co-ordinator, working with its Director, Professor Antonella Sorace, who set up the unit in 2008.
Professor Sorace is an internationally known specialist in bilingualism and language development and established the centre as a way of conducting much-needed research into this often-misunderstood area, as well as communicating the research findings on bilingualism to enable people to make informed decisions based on scientific evidence.
Many myths have grown up around multilingualism. In the past, it was commonly thought that bringing up a child with two languages would slow their development, but this stance has been reversed in recent years where the media have sensationalised research findings to claim that having more than one language will make people smarter, more creative and even ‘cure’ dementia.
There is some truth in these recent claims, as research has shown that bilingualism is beneficial for children’s development. Children exposed to different languages become more aware of different cultures and other people’s points of view and they tend to also be better than monolinguals at ‘multitasking’ and focusing their attention.
More recent research also suggests that learning another language may have benefits in later life, delaying the onset of dementia symptoms and slowing cognitive aging, even when people learn a second language later in life.
Professor Sorace said: “The Bilingualism Matters centre was started as a public engagement service for parents and teachers in Edinburgh about this topic. We started small, giving talks to people, but we quickly became more visible because there is a more general lack of understanding about multilingualism. We’ve developed our public engagement over the years and now we are called on to give advice to a wide range of sectors including educationalists, health practitioners and policy-makers.”
It’s the fact of having more than one language in the brain that matters – it doesn’t matter what those languages are.
Such is the success of the Bilingualism Matters model of public engagement that other universities around the world have adopted it and the centre has grown into an international network with 27 branches in three continents.
This public engagement is particularly important in the education and healthcare sectors as children learning two languages will have gaps in their vocabulary and understanding, which in the past could have been put down to ‘slow development’ and they would have been referred to speech therapists or for extra support at schools.
Bilingualism is also often seen as incompatible with a range of developmental conditions, including dyslexia, developmental language impairments, and autism. However, more research-based information is needed before making wide generalisations. The team is now researching multilingualism in children on the autism spectrum to see whether its effects could be neutral or even positive in some cases.
Professor Sorace said: “Our research looks at the attributes of people who have two or more languages, looking for commonalities as well as strengths and weaknesses, but our point is that it’s the fact of having more than one language in the brain that matters – it doesn’t matter what those actual languages are.”
Research shows that the benefits of being multilingual are both linguistic and cognitive. Having more than one language makes it easier to understand how language works in general, and therefore makes it easier to pick up further languages.
Katarzyna can attest to this with her children, who grew up speaking both Polish and Spanish at home. She said: “I found that reading in one language helped them read in another language, and they have really picked up English from their friends and the popular culture that surrounds them without me intentionally teaching them English at all.”
The cognitive benefits of being multilingual are also noticeable. In general, multilinguals have better developed mechanisms of attention and cognitive control and have a better ability to understand other people’s points of views as well as being able to switch from one task to another with high degrees of concentration.
The team’s latest research has been looking at decision-making, as Professor Sorace explained: “There are certain kinds of memories that are associated with your native language and that suggests decision-making is influenced by your emotions, but making decisions using the second language – because it is learned later – is more influenced by logic.
“However, we think this is a little bit simplistic as fluency and experience are also important factors. For example, I have lived in this country for a long time, so I have lots of emotions that I have experienced in English. We need more research in this area.”
A second language should be seen as a resource and not a threat.
Professor Sorace’s team has also conducted research projects for the Scottish Government and other Scottish agencies – recently on learning Chinese at primary school – as well on European-wide projects such as Advancing the European Multilingual Experience, which looks at, among other things, regional and minority languages in Europe, such as Gaelic in Scotland and Sardinian in Italy.
The centre also looks at language against the backdrop of the current migration crisis, ever-increasing globalisation and in terms of personal identity and heritage. Its Language, Place and Identity project explores children’s own perceptions of heritage and community languages, such as looking at what promotes or detracts from children wanting to be multilingual and developing their language skills, in family, community and school contexts.
This is a big issue for people coming to live in the UK from another country where English is not their mother tongue. While their language is part of their identity and culture, there can be pressure for the children to use their new-found English to integrate and fit in with their contemporaries at school. They may even beg their parents to not speak in their native language in front of their friends to avoid embarrassment.
This repression of identity can be particularly pernicious in societies where more populist governments hold sway, placing the focus on ‘cultural purity’ and creating social and political pressures on people where multilingualism can be discouraged.
Professor Sorace said: “Populist attitudes do not go well with multilingualism. Populism means focusing on themselves and excluding ‘others’, such as immigrants. It creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust of these ‘others’, and the language they speak is a proxy for that.”
Increasing globalisation is also another threat to multilingualism, particularly to minority languages, and that is why Professor Sorace and her international network of researchers are keen to promote the benefits of having more than one language regardless of what languages those are.
She explained: “Globalisation is not a friend of linguistic diversity. That’s why we need to persuade people that these languages should be maintained because multilingualism provides benefits to both children and adults. A second language should be seen as a resource and not a threat.”