Bilingualism does not damage children; it matters!

[by Karen Sykes]

On Friday last at the Area 8 ML Conference, I was delighted to meet an academic heroine of mine, Professor Antonella Sorace (Edinburgh University). It was fascinating and refreshing to hear her debunk common misconceptions on language learning and plead for the dissemination of accurate information on the matter.

She gave an enlightening talk on aspects of the work that she and her colleagues undertake on bilingualism / multilingualism. Their findings indicate proven cognitive benefits for learners (of any age, in fact), and regardless of whether the language(s) is /are simultaneously or consecutively acquired or whether the languages acquired are fluent. She also explained that re-learning an already acquired language is much easier than starting from scratch.

Bilingual children have, no surprise, metalinguistic ability and awareness, which favour the learning of other languages, particularly in terms of acquiring the sound system (letter-sound correspondences in alphabetic scripts), word formation and structures. However, having another language can enhance the learning of the majority language (for our students, English). Findings also suggest that bilingual and multilingual children read more and are able decoders. However, there are no studies which suggest that the earlier the exposure the better, perhaps except where sound acquisition (tone) is concerned.

Research has also shown that bilingual children are predisposed to understand that others have a different perspective, and this is reflected in their behaviour outside the language domain. They are more accepting of a different way of thinking, and this persists into adulthood, where children have begun to learn other languages. The obvious positive benefit of this cognitive advantage is flexibility in thinking. Hearing other languages also encourages learners to acquire positive attitudes to other languages (and those who speak them), and it is important in this regard that the learner be exposed to a variety of different speakers of the language.

In addition, attentional skills have been observed amongst bilinguals/multilinguals. They demonstrate focused attention on tasks, and an ability to switch efficiently between tasks, suggesting an ability to update the mental set quickly. Cognitive flexibility in bilinguals/multilinguals brings with it the skills of adaptation and adjustment.

Professor Sorace pointed out the need to eradicate ‘language snobbery’ and emphasised the case that all languages are good in cognitive terms. If individuals have more than one language (not just a prestige one!), they show ability in inhibiting and controlling the other language(s) when communicating in the other. Studies indicate that bilinguals are better at handling and monitoring conflicting information.

What are the wider implications? Language learning is shown to improve reasoning and problem-solving, transferable to other subjects, such as science and maths. The over-emphasis on languages as a companion subject to other arts or humanities subjects is over-played in education and work.

The benefits of bilingualism/multilingualism for business also cannot be underestimated, as bilinguals/multilinguals demonstrate enhanced negotiation and prioritising skills, leaderships skills, and show a better understanding of others’ points of view, according to research.

As is well reported, the UK has the worst language skills in the EU, hiding behind that old chestnut that ‘everyone speaks English’. The language tax, Professor Sorace reminded us, costs the UK economy an estimated £7.3 billion per year, a loss to the economy of some enormity.

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