Lost for words? Considering language attrition

Discussions at workshop

Bilingualism Matters is delighted to be involved in ESRC-funded First Language Attrition Seminar Series, which is led by Monika Schmid, University of Essex. As part of the series, we hosted a two-day workshop on “The Selectivity of Native Language Attrition” last week, which delivered interesting new findings in bilingualism research.

The term ‘attrition’ is somewhat controversial, as it refers to the decline in proficiency in one language for bilinguals – their native language. This is a common occurrence for bilinguals who start using their second language more frequently, for instance if they move to another country.

Attrition is often seen as a negative consequence of bilingualism but it is a completely natural phenomenon when frequently using more than one language. Academics from around the world came together last week to discuss research findings from various studies agreeing on how attrition affects not only bilinguals living abroad, but also those intensively studying a new language. Putting aside the negative connotation that might be connected with the word, the message was very clear from the workshop that this is a normal process and nothing to worry about.

If you are interested in learning more about this subject, check out the Language Attrition website. You may also want to consider attending the upcoming Practitioner Day in London on 10th November, which aims to provide useful information for practitioners, teachers, parents, caregivers and policy makers for the importance of the native or home language in professional and personal settings. Find more details here.

(Thanks to Robert Spelorzi, Eva-Maria Schnelten and Andrea Padovan for contributing to this post)

The Importance of the Native Language – Practitioner Day (Birkbeck, University of London, November 10th 2017)

Photo: iStock

Bilingualism Matters is excited to be involved in this final event in  a series of academic conferences and workshops funded by the ESRC.

The Importance of the Native Language – Practitioner Day is on November 10th 2017 from 9:00-5:00 pm at Birkbeck, University of London. This event is part of the 2017 ESRC Festival of Social Science and will be hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Multilingual and Multicultural Research and organised in collaboration between the Centre for Research in Language Development throughout the Lifespan at the University of Essex (LaDeLi), the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck College, Mothertongue and Bilingualism Matters. The event is part of an ESRC-funded seminar series on language attrition, awarded to Prof. Monika Schmid (University of Essex, grant ES/M001776/1)

Participation is free, but for catering and planning purposes, please register here.

Please email languageattrition@essex.ac.uk in case of any questions.

What are the challenges, benefits and opportunities in being able to use several languages?

The economic and personal benefits of acquiring a second language are well known but the fact that learning new languages has ramifications for the existing ones – first language attrition – is usually ignored. This Practitioner Day will bring together experts on the importance of the native language and will explore problems and opportunities which a multilingual society and a multilingual life entails, in both a professional and a personal context. It is intended to provide useful information for practitioners, teachers, parents, caregivers and policy makers for the importance of the native or home language in professional and personal settings.

During the day, we will address topics including:

  • Multilingual children and language brokering
  • Multilingual children in foster care
  • Language, emotion and therapy
  • Citizenship, language and identity
  • Language attrition and problems of intergenerational transmission of the minority language

(a full programme is available here)

We look forward to seeing you in London!

Education is much more than just going to school and bilingualism is an important part of it

Post by Thomas H Bak, Co-director of Bilingualism Matters

There is hardly an idea as deeply ingrained and universally shared across academia as the belief in the value of education. Education is a good thing, and the more we can get of it the better. Conversely, lack of education is one of the worst evils. After all, education is our profession, our mission and, to a large extent, our raison d’être.

So it is not surprising that findings suggesting that education can protect against dementia were immediately greeted with enthusiasm. Here we had a tangible proof for the Latin proverb that we are learning not for the school but for life (“non scholae sed vitae discimus”). Admittedly, the results have never been as straight forward as one could wish: in some studies, the education effects were confined to specific circumstances such as rural residence or female gender and the results differed substantially from country to country (Bak & Alladi 2016). But the general principle that education must be one of the best ways of protecting our brain against disease was never seriously called into question.

This contrasts dramatically with the treatment of studies suggesting that bilingualism could have a positive effect in counteracting cognitive ageing (Bak et al 2014), delaying the onset of dementia (Alladi et al 2013) and improving stroke outcome (Alladi et al 2016). Here, any study not showing a “bilingualism effect” was readily taken as a proof that the whole idea is a “myth”. If bilingualism and education correlated with each other, it was taken for granted that any potential effect of bilingualism must be in fact due to the influence of education; certainly not the other way round. In other words: if a study did not find an effect of bilingualism, the problem was with bilingualism. If a study did not find an education effect, the problem was with the study.

The recent paper by Ramakrishnan et al (2017) makes a systematic attempt to compare the effects of education and bilingualism on the age of onset of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a precursor stage of dementia. Although in India, like in many other countries, bilingualism tends to be more common among people with higher education, the two variables can be dissociated. In particular, it is not unusual to find people with minimal or even absent school education who can speak two or more languages. This allowed us to compare the effects of bilingualism and of the years of education on the age of onset of the MCI. The difference between bilinguals and monolinguals was significant (65.2 vs. 58.1 years), indeed, even larger than the 4-5 years reported in previous studies of bilingualism and dementia. In contrast, education had only a modest effect: 59.1 years for people with less than 10 years of education, 62.6 for those with 10-15 years of education, 62.2 for those with more than 15 years.

So is the positive effect of education on cognition in later life just a myth that we like to believe because it provides us with one more argument for the importance of schools and universities? This is certainly not the message that we wish to convey in our paper. Education is important, but we need to define it more broadly: it is much more than just going to school.

Most measures of education used in cognitive studies are rather crude: the number of years spent in formal education, the age at leaving school/university or the highest degree obtained. In all cases, the measures do not take into account differences in quality between schools (or, for that matter, universities) and, importantly, any type of education happening outside school. This equating of education with school attendance becomes even more problematic in illiterate societies. Obviously, the transmission of knowledge in human societies predates the invention of writing and the establishment of formal schools by thousands of years. In countries like India, such traditions have survived until the present day; some accomplished and successful artisans might be illiterate, but it would be wrong to describe them as “uneducated”.

However, this is not only an issue applying to the developing countries. Millions of refugees and immigrants coming currently into the Western world bring with them much more in terms of education than a simple count of their years of school attendance, often cut short by war and displacement, might suggest. One of these under-recognised and underestimated treasures is their knowledge of languages. Many immigrants are fluent in more than one language, coming from ethnic and linguistic minorities or from countries where multilingualism is the norm rather than exception (which is, among others, the case across much of South Asia and Africa). This is also a form of education, carrying not only social and cultural but, as our study shows, health benefits. Accordingly, bilingualism and knowledge of languages should be recognised as a crucial part of education, independently whether they were acquired in the family, classroom, workplace or any other setting. If we want to understand the influence of education on our brains as well as on our societies, we have to appreciate its complex and multifaceted nature. And languages are an important part of it.

References (with websites):

Bak & Alladi 2016

Bak et al 2014

Alladi et al 2013

Alladi et al 2016

Ramakrishnan et al 2017



In the news: article in Italian magazine

Professor Antonella Sorace, Founder and Director of Bilingualism Matters, had an article published yesterday in ‘Sette’, the weekly magazine of major Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. In the article ‘Smontiamo tutti i pregiudizi sul bilinguismo’ (loosely translated ‘Removing Prejudice Against Bilingualism’), she confronts some of the myths surrounding bilingualism with facts from science.

You can read the article online here.

You can see a pdf  of the print version here.


What Peppa Pig can teach us about bilingualism (and systematic reviews cannot)

Blog post by Thomas H Bak

Yes, I admit it: I am a great fan of Peppa Pig. Unlike fairy-tales of magic castles and princesses it depicts in an entertaining way real every-day life and teaches useful skills like how to recycle rubbish, how to make peace with your best friend after falling out with her or how to understand the seemingly irrational behaviour of your younger brother. And it is good for languages too: not only is Peppa Pig highly multilingual, available in a large selection of languages. In several episodes, Peppa interacts with people speaking other languages, whether it’s her French friend or the friendly Italians she meets on holidays. I am sure Peppa, like me, would disagree with the recent article by Simon Jenkins in Guardian that for English speakers learning foreign languages is a waste of time (1).

However, a recent Guardian article about Australia pulling off the air Peppa Pig’s “Mister Skinny Legs” episode (2) made me realise how much Peppa Pig is ahead of some parts of the scientific community when it comes to the interpretation of data. [Read more…]

Explorathon 2017 @ Leith Labs 29th Sept

Friday 29th September 2017 is European Researchers’ Night – an opportunity for the general public to discover science, meet researchers and have fun!

We’ll be joining Explorathon 2017 at Leith Labs in Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre, Edinburgh, from 12 noon to 6pm with researchers from Bilingualism Matters and our European partner project AThEME.

We’re going to have lots of fun, language-related activities for all the family, so come along and join us, along with many other researchers, at Leith Labs!

Bilingualism Matters Blog

Welcome to the Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh blog section! We invite a wide range of contributors to get involved and stimulate discussion about bilingualism and language learning. As such, not all opinions given here represent the views of Bilingualism Matters.

Scots in the Scottish Curriculum

Post by Adam Scott Clark

Scots is a language variety spoken in the Scottish Lowlands and in Northern Ireland. It is generally known in Scotland as Lowland Scots, to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic, and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland, to distinguish it from the variety spoken in Scotland. As it is difficult (likely impossible) to classify a language variety as a ‘language’ in its own right or a ‘dialect’ of another language, there has been some debate over whether Scots is a language or a variety of English. Whether a language variety possesses the status of language or of dialect is very often not a matter of linguistics but rather one of politics – consider for instance Danish and Norwegian, two very closely (and usually mutually intelligible) ‘languages’ that are considered ‘languages’ based on their association with independent and sovereign states and not based on their linguistic characteristics. If we consider Romanian and Moldovan, the issues over what constitutes a ‘language’ or a ‘dialect’ becomes even more apparent.

This post looks at how Scots is used in the Scottish curriculum, regardless of whether it is considered a ‘language’ or a ‘dialect.’ [Read more…]

Questions for Bilingualism Matters experts?

Following the success of Antonella Sorace’s and Thomas Bak’s Edinburgh Fringe shows in the last week, we are offering everyone who was unable to attend the opportunity to put their questions directly to Antonella and Thomas on Twitter.

Our live Twitter Q&A session will take place today, Friday 25th August, from 4pm to 5pm (BST). Use #askbiling to ask your questions, and follow the discussion!

Check out the videos below to get an idea of some of the questions they were asked by the enthusiastic audiences at their packed shows.

Follow Bilingualism Matters on Twitter: @BilingMatters
Follow Thomas Bak on Twitter: @thbaketal

Is monolingualism making us ill?

Post by Thomas Bak, Co-director of Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh

Last Thursday I had a chance to see and listen to what might become one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival: the performance of Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” by English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. For me, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but also one of the most unsettling ones. It raises the question whether beauty can be equally perceived (and enjoyed), whether it is truthful or deceitful. Is the final, tantalisingly beautiful love duet between Nero and Poppea equally moving when we know that the feelings expressed there are not genuine, but rather reflect deceit and manipulation? This opera has been puzzling me since I had first heard it many years ago, but I believe it is exactly one of the things that great art should do: not only to please us, but also to make us think. [Read more…]