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  • Writer's picturePhileas Fox

Research on bilingualism

We attended a fascinating lecture by Dr Roberto Filippi, an Associate professor at UCL Institute of Education and Co-Director of Bilingualism Matters London. Dr Filippi talked about scientific research on bilingualism and multilingualism, and we are delighted to share the key points from the discussion. If you are interested in Dr Filippi's work, you can find more information here.

1. Research. A lot of research has been done over the years into bilingualism and how it affects cognition. Historically, up to the 1960s, being bilingual was perceived to be a negative thing. It is believed to be mainly due to the socio-economic factors affecting the studies' participants. This has evolved, and since the 1990s being bilingual is considered to be very positive, with studies showing that bilinguals outperform monolinguals at all ages. Occasionally, studies show that there is no difference in performance between the two. But one thing is for sure- no recent published study showed that second language acquisition is detrimental to cognitive development.

2. Effects of bilingualism. Besides the ability to speak and understand another language, being bilingual improves non-verbal cognitive functions such as concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, reasoning and learning. As we age, bilingualism protects the brain from cognitive decline and can delay the development of dementia and Alzheimer's. Bilingualism also improves multilinguistic awareness, which means you can learn a third and fourth language faster once you have mastered two languages.

3. How it works. Infants can already distinguish languages in the womb. There are several levels to being bilingual: native (from birth), early (from 5 years old) and late (puberty) bilinguals. Native bilinguals will have a higher level of proficiency than late bilinguals. Bilinguals focus on their target language and inhibit interference from the non-target language. The brain continuously trains to do that and this cognitive training can show benefits in resolving a conflict between competing information beyond the language system. The brain's plasticity activates and changes with this experience, but languages need to be kept active and used, feeding the brain new activity with new situations and vocabulary exposure.

4. Bilingual children. Acquiring two or more languages at the same time does not cause any developmental or speech delay in children. Such delays can be caused by a number of different factors, but not because a child has "too many languages". There is also no scientific evidence that bilingualism can be detrimental to children with autism (however one must consider the spectrum and other factors). On the contrary, it has shown to improve overall social interaction. Children are exposed to a larger vocabulary because they have two languages. The quality of the input of language acquisition is important and will aid progress.

5. Perception. In the UK, bilingualism still sometimes has a negative connotation. Some schools treat EAL (English as an additional language) as a weakness, instead of embracing the benefits it gives to children. As parents and educators, we should promote the benefits of bilingual and multilingual education. In our next blog, we will share some tips on how to raise children in a multilingual environment.


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