The impacts of speaking more than one language are diverse and there are so many questions we still don’t have an answer to. Linguist Antonella Sorace works to solve these remaining puzzles and make sure negative attitudes about language learning don’t get in the way.
You are specialised in bilingualism, what exactly does it mean and why is it an interesting topic to focus on?
For my research group and I, bilingualism means the use of more than one language. So it also covers multilingualism. A bilingual person is not a sum of a monolingual speaker of language A, and a monolingual speaker of language B. Learning another language changes your native language too, so you are not like a native monolingual speaker of any language anymore, which is very fascinating.
So what’s good about bilingualism? Does knowing more than one language have any concrete benefits?
The existing research has pointed towards many positive things. Language related benefits are perhaps the most obvious ones. Bilingual children intuitively understand language better than monolingual children. This applies to adults as well. It’s also been found that learning a 3rd or a 4th language is easier for bilinguals. Outside of language, it can be said that bilingual children understand earlier than monolingual children, that others can have different perspectives from their own. This is a typical developmental stage in all children, but bilingual children seem to experience it earlier. Bilingual adults also seem to embrace other people’s perspectives quicker. Bilingualism can also lead to better control of attention. When you have more than one language in your brain, they are always active and so when you focus on one you have to exclude the others. You can’t switch languages off, but you can learn to control the way you use them. This is linked to a better control of attention in other aspects of life as well.
The benefits of bilingualism seem clear. Then why is it that the attitude towards learning new languages is often so indifferent or even negative?
Attitudes towards learning languages in Britain are not particularly positive. The status of English as an international language allows other subjects such as maths and science to take priority. In Scotland the government has invested quite a bit of money into teaching languages at schools. Now pupils study two languages in primary schools. This started in 2014, so only 6 years ago. A lot of work is needed to persuade people into thinking this is useful. Children are usually not the problem as they are often curious towards languages. However, if the parents at home are not supportive, it’s hard to create positive change.
What about disadvantages, is it possible to name any?
The speed at which bilinguals access words in their mental vocab is slower. There are also indirect issues that can be seen as problems. For example in healthcare, if health professionals are familiar with only the development stages of a typical monolingual child, there is a risk of over diagnosing impairments that are not there. A multilingual child might not follow the exact same developmental rhythms or patterns. There’s also a risk of under diagnosing developmental problems if people think “of course this child is making all these mistakes because they are bilingual.” Professionals need more information to be able to distinguish whether something is wrong or not.
You have founded an organisation called Bilingualism Matters, what is the main goal of the organisation?
When I founded Bilingualism Matters, I was aware of how little people know about bilingualism in society. Now we have a huge international network: 26 branches on 3 continents. We try to connect different sectors of society and share objective knowledge on bilingualism. We are in an excellent position to compare good practises and policies between different countries and create positive change.
The world is becoming more and more international, do you think in the future bilingualism will be more of a norm?
Most people in the world already are bilingual or multilingual. However, because of globalisation and the current changing political landscapes, real monolingualism is likely to become less and less common even in english-speaking countries. Which is not exactly a bad thing! At the same time many minority languages are dying. We do our best to encourage parents to speak their own languages to their children, because a language can’t skip very many generations without fading out.
Antonella Sorace (University of Edinburgh) will participate in a panel discussion Preserving Minority Languages with Riitta Valijärvi (University College London) and Jim Whannel (The University of Edinburgh, Bòrd na Gàidhlig) on January 31st at 6pm, free admission.
CCA Glasgow, 350 Sauchiehall Street, G2 3JD Glasgow.
Text: Eeva Lehtonen Photo: Antonella Sorace