Can multilingualism help address the key issues of our time?

29 March 2017


Reported by Anna Fee, NERC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (January-April 2017)

CSaP Policy Leaders Fellows visited the University of Cambridge in February to gain a better understanding of social cohesion from a range of perspectives - cultural, geographical, political and economic.

Professor Wendy Bennett from the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics presented Multilingualism Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS), an AHRC-funded project led by Cambridge, with researchers from the universities of Nottingham, Edinburgh and Belfast, and international partners in Norway, Spain and Hong Kong.

This project hopes to show the importance of modern European languages, UK indigenous languages and emerging community languages in areas like social cohesion, cultural awareness, national and international relations, health and wellbeing and conflict resolution in the UK.

The project will emphasise the advantage of being multilingual and show how modern languages can address the key issues of our time.

One area the project will focus on is integration of children whose first language is not English into the British education system. One in five children in our schools have a first language which is not English and between them, they speak more than 360 different languages. Evidence suggests that if children are allowed to use their first language at school, it helps them integrate and multilingual friendship groups can help monolingual children become interested in learning new languages.

Another focus of the project will be on the health benefits of multilingualism. Professor Bennett reported that recent research on bilinguals indicated that they are better at combatting cognitive ageing than those who speak only one language, and have improved cognitive outcomes following a stroke.

The research also shows that these same cognitive benefits are available if you learn languages later on in life, which could be a powerful motive for encouraging people to learn new languages and maintain the languages they already know. An example study was conducted with groups of elderly people on the Isle of Skye; one group learned Chinese calligraphy and the other learned Scottish Gaelic. The group who had learned Gaelic demonstrated greater cognitive benefits when asked to do other tasks than the group who had learned calligraphy.

The project will aim to change attitudes towards learning languages in the way attitudes have changed towards STEM subjects.

Professor Bennett explained that language learning had declined in popularity in schools and universities in the UK; the MEITS project aimed to change attitudes towards learning languages in a similar way to how attitudes have changed towards STEM subjects. The project will benefit from the participation of three Policy Fellows from the CSaP network who will help shape the research questions and use the findings to inform their work.

The project will aim to increase communication of language and multilingualism research outputs to the public through the introduction of a new online policy journal, and pop up language museums in shops, showcasing research results through interactive displays for children and the general public.

(Banner Image: courtesy of University of Wolverhampton via Flickr )

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge