Bilingualism and cognitive functions in brain diseases: from dementia to stroke

Dr Thomas BakThomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Around 50 years ago, when I was growing up in Cracow (Poland) as a son of a Polish-speaking father and German-speaking mother, my parents decided, after a careful consideration, to prevent me from learning German, fearing that being bilingual could lead to negative consequences for my mental development. There were neither practical nor political reasons for this decision: my father was fluent in German and his father had studied in Vienna, as was usual for educated citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Their decision was also not based on ignorance: as doctors, they had consulted what was the dominant academic view of the time. Psychologists, speech and language therapists as well as teachers were convinced that bilingualism diminishes children’s intelligence, confuses them and may even cause schizophrenia. It was also by no means a view confined to the former Soviet Block: I have met many people from all over the world growing up in the same time, whose parents made the same decision and this for very similar reasons. [Read more…]

Dr Thomas Bak at Newly Qualified Gaelic Teachers conference

Bilingualism Matters deputy director Dr Thomas Bak today addressed the latest cohort of qualified Gaelic teachers. Dr Bak outlined the benefits of bilingualism, with a talk entitled “How can learning Gaelic help the brain? Cognitive effects of learning languages across the lifespan”.

The talk was designed to help teachers explore the benefits of speaking multiple languages with students and their parents, as well as to encourage the teachers themselves to make the most of their language skills.

“The good news is that a lot of the benefits we are looking at are apparent in people who started learning languages later in life”, said Dr. Bak. “So even when someone does not grow up with Gaelic in their household, by becoming a qualified Gaelic teacher they are not just able to pass on the benefits of bilingualism to students in Gaelic Medium Education – they are also reaping those rewards for themselves.”

The conference is organised by Bòrd na Gàidhlig (the national body responsible for promoting the Gaelic language in Scotland), as part of range of initiatives to make sure newly qualified Gaelic teachers are fully supported.

“The demand for Gaelic-medium education continues to grow across Scotland with parents recognising how much of an advantage it gives children”, said the team behind today’s event. “As a result of this there is a need to strengthen the infrastructure of Gaelic education and learning generally by supporting the recruitment of a confident, appropriately trained workforce in order to service the expansion of Gaelic education. Along with the help of the Scottish Government, Local Authorities and further education institutions Bòrd na Gàidhlig supports initiatives to increase the range of courses available to those wishing to enter teaching, or to transfer to teaching Gaelic or through the medium of Gaelic. It is paramount to the future of Gaelic education that we continue to help facilitate the recruitment of talented individuals to educate, inspire and encourage the new generation of Gaelic speakers across Scotland.”

Get more information about becoming a Gaelic teacher in Scotland on Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s dedicated website

The multilingual dividend: Multilingualism in the workplace

multilingual dividend: benefits and challenges of languages in business Bilingualism Matters is delighted to be involved in a prestigious event organised by the Financial Times and Pearson English.

On 25th November 2015, centre director Prof. Antonella Sorace will form part of an panel addressing delegates from across industry at a “Business Breakfast” seminar. These expert inputs will be followed by wider discussion around the opportunities and challenges of a multilingual workforce (or lack thereof).

Pearson English have kindly made the video of Prof. Sorace’s presentation at the Business Breakfast event available online via their youtube chanel. Watch the video here.

Celebrating the “School and Family Together” project

On Tuesday 10th November researchers from Bilingualism Matters joined teachers, parents and policy makers to celebrate the School and Family Together project, which aims to facilitate social integration through collaborative language learning.

SOFT project final event The project, which has been running since December 2012, will come to an end on 30th November 2015. During that time, project coordinator Dr Martha Robinson has visited 6 schools and early years centres around Edinburgh, reaching over 500 children. Dr. Robinson says “SOFT is a really innovative project that involves bringing children together through learning. The children tell a story together in the target language to get them used to sounds, words and phrases – no translations allowed! Then we follow up with related activities to cement their learning – for example, singing songs together in the language or making a puppet theatre based on the characters. It’s been fantastic to see the progress the children have made – whether it be classes learning French or Spanish as part of the 1+2 languages policy, or groups of recently arrived children doing the activities in English.”

Delegates gathered at the Scottish Story-telling Centre to hear about the project’s impact, with first-hand accounts from teachers involved in the project as well as some preliminary research results. A message was read from Dr. Alasdair Allan MSP, Minster of Learning, Science and Scotland’s languages, who saw the project in action at St. David’s RC primary in Pilton, in September 2015:

“An early start to their language learning journey will deepen and strengthen our young people’s language skills, and create more enthusiasm towards further language learning. The work of Bilingualism Matters, and the S.O.F.T. project, provide an important contribution to the implementation of our ambitious 1+2 language policy, so it was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the children taking part in the S.O.F.T. project on my recent visit to St David’s Primary in Edinburgh. Thank you for this extremely positive, contribution to language learning in Scotland.”

Prof Antonella Sorace speaking on multilingualism in the law

Institute of Advanced Legal Studies

On 30 November 2015, Bilingualism Matters director Prof. Antonella Sorace will speak at a workshop hosted by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (School of Advanced Study, University of London). The topic of the workshop will be “Bilingualism and Multilingualism in Legislative Drafting.

The event is free but prior booking is required.

For more information and enquirees about the event, please contact the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies .

Dr Thomas Bak in podcast on dementia and bilingualism

Bilingualism Matters researcher Dr Thomas Bak, reader in human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, was interviewed as part of a podcast about dementia and bilingualism.

The podcast “Dementia stole my grandmother’s memories – and our common language” is part of The World in Words’ weekly series by Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki.

Listen to the podcast on PRI’s website

1+2 languages policy in Edinburgh primary schools

Prof. Antonella Sorace comments on plans for all primary school children in Edinburgh to be learning two languages by 2017, ahead of the national 2020 deadline.

Edinburgh Evening News 13-Oct-2015

Could you tell that I was not native when you first heard me speak?

This is a guest post from Hanan Ben Nafa.

Hanan is a 2nd year, PhD candidate in Sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has been in the UK since 2009 when she moved for the purpose of pursuing her studies. The title of her PhD project is: ‘Code-Switching & Social identity construction among Arabic-English bilinguals’. You can read a recent publication by Hanan here

If you’ve ever spent time in Manchester, you’ll probably have noticed those 2 people sitting on the bus or in the cafe speaking some English, then switching to gibberish (or, in my case, Arabic). Well, they (we) are bilinguals: along with around 50% of the world’s population, we can speak more than one language and even switch languages mid-sentence if the context is right.

I’m a 26 year old, late Arabic-English bilingual (I learnt Arabic first, and English later on). As a speaker of Arabic, I’m far from unique in Manchester: Arabic, it turns out, is the second most spoken community language in Central Manchester, second only to Urdu (Multilingual Manchester, 2013). But every bilingual’s journey is different. And although I feel undoubtedly lucky to be bilingual, it also brings its own challenges – especially around identity.  [Read more…]

Language learning on Good Morning Scotland

Prof. Antonella Sorace discusses language learning in Scottish schools

Research participants wanted: Multilingual speakers of British English

Scientists working on the EU funded AThEME project are looking to recruit multilingual speakers of British English for their research into how people process multiple languages.

Participant requirements

  • native speakers of British English (i.e., since you were born)
  • have a native, or near native knowledge of one or more other languages, or have been exposed to one or more other language since childhood
  • aged between 18 – 30 inclusive
  • have no history of hearing or language impairment

Take part in the study

In this experiment, participants will play a picture game on the computer and will be asked to answer some questions.

Testing takes 1 hour and 20 minutes and takes place at the University of Edinburgh’s Psychology Building (7 George Square, central campus).

Participants will be paid £8 (cash payment) in return for contributing to this research.

Testing will take place throughout July. For further information or to register your interest in taking part, please contact lead researcher Michela Bonfieni