Bilingualism Matters

Summary 

Bilingualism Matters carries out research and public engagement on the benefits of language learning. It is the basis of an international network.

What was the problem? 

In 2008 Professor Antonella Sorace founded the Bilingualism Matters (BM) programme to share her research findings with the wider public.

Sorace wanted to fight some common misconceptions about bilingualism, and instead focus on its benefits. In particular, Sorace wanted to address the myth that bilingualism is bad for children’s cognitive development.

BM’s purpose is to make current research on bilingualism more accessible, and help people make informed decisions about language learning. BM aims to reach a wide audience, including parents, educators, health professionals, and policy makers.

What did we do? 

Multilingual families are more and more common in the UK and Europe thanks to increased mobility. Professor Sorace founded the Developmental Linguistics Group at the University of Edinburgh in 2001. Along with the arrival of several other researchers, this marked the start of an important development in research into multilingualism and bilingualism.

The Edinburgh approach

The University of Edinburgh is one of the few places globally that studies language-learning at all ages, as well as its effect on thought and mental skills across the lifespan. The Centre is based in the school of PPLS, bringing together research perspectives from linguistics, child development, and cognitive psychology to explore how language and thinking develops.

Bilingualism vs monolingualism

Researchers compared bilingual children and adults’ language-acquisition and mental flexibility with those of monolinguals – people who speak only one language. This meant researchers could learn about the effect of early bilingualism on children’s language. They found that, although bilinguals may have smaller vocabularies than monolinguals, this tends to equalise in older bilingual children. They also found that second-language learning can be more effective when it begins before the age of 4.

Researchers also found that people who start learning a language later in life show some of the same mental benefits as people who learnt multiple languages as young children – including Dr Thomas Bak’s work suggesting a delay in the onset of dementia symptoms.

Bilingualism Matters (...) makes accessible to practitioners in schools the importance of early language exposure and learning and the underpinning research. This is what we all hope for from the collaboration between universities and schools (...) of which (Bilingualism Matters) is a shining model.
Convenor of the Scotland-China Education Network
What happened next? 

BM has provided facts about bilingualism to the public, contributing to a change in attitudes.

Families and teachers

Sorace and other BM representatives have provided talks and workshops to teachers, parent groups and community groups to promote bilingualism. In 2010 the European Commission invited Sorace to Brussels to advise on its Piccolingo campaign to promote multilingualism. She was given EU-Lifelong Learning funding to support children in Scotland learning a language with their parents. The EU has funded a follow-up project to speak to schools and migrant families.

Health professionals

BM aims to keep health professional up-to-date on the latest research about bilingualism. This ensures that they are well informed, and do not give families out-of-date information. BM has run many training sessions for speech therapists, childminders, paediatricians, and other health professionals in Scotland and elsewhere. Dr Vicky Chondrogianni is building partnerships with NHS Lothian to improve the assessment of bilingual children referred to Speech and Language Therapists.

Policy makers

BM members have organised more than 100 information seminars for international organisations such as the European Central Bank, Council of Europe and European Commission. The Scottish Government has consulted Sorace in developing its policy on language-learning in primary schools, which aims to introduce two languages in primary schools.

Regional and global language communities

BM is now a Europe-wide network with branches in Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, and the US. Several of these branches were set up with the support of the EU-Commission funded project Advancing the European Multilingual Experience.

In Scotland, Sorace worked with Bòrd na Gàidhlig feeding into reports by the Curriculum for Excellence  Gaelic Excellence Group. Farther afield, BM and Sorace have contributed to Sardinian language policy. BM’s research has also led to other research into specific language communities.

About the researcher(s)

Professor of Developmental Linguistics
Lecturer in Bilingualism
Reader

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Linguistics and English Language

Funder(s)

  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • European Commission
  • SOILLSE: The National Research Network for the Maintenance and Revitalisation of Gaelic Language and Culture
  • Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NOW)
  • The Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency
  • The Leverhulme Trust
  • The Royal Society of Edinburgh

Related study programmes