Bilingualism: what about dialects?

Commonly, when thinking about bilingualism our first thought goes to people who grew up in a family speaking more than one standard language… But how about the case of people who use both a standard language, such as English or Italian, as well as a local dialect? This is a very common situation in many countries around the world.

From the linguistic point of view, regional dialects are just as rich and complex as standard languages, even if, in many cases, they have similar vocabularies, grammars, and sounds. But from a historical and administrative point of view, standard languages and dialects have very different statuses, and this is often reflected in the different contexts in which each is used. For example, the standard language may be encouraged at school while the local variant may be used in the home. This difference in statuses, together with the linguistic similarities, means that many people may overlook the bilingual experience of those who also speak a dialect. In other words, they are not considered bilingual at all. [Read more…]

Knowing multiple languages can improve recovery from stroke

People who speak more than one language are more likely to recover from a stroke than monolingual patients, research suggests.

Researchers have found that people who speak multiple languages are twice as likely to recover their mental functions after stroke as those who speak one language.

The study, co-authored by Bilingualism Matters Deputy Director Dr. Thomas Bak, gathered data from 608 stroke patients in Hyderabad, India. The patients were assessed on their attention skills and the ability to retrieve and organise information.

The researchers found about 40 per cent of bilingual patients had normal mental function following a stroke, compared with 20 per cent of single language patients. [Read more…]

Learning to read: does being bilingual help or hinder?

Does learning to read in one language help children learn to read in another language? Research on children learning to read in two languages with similar writing systems (e.g. English and Spanish) suggests that it might. But what if the writing systems differ as dramatically as, for example, English and Chinese? Does this still give bilinguals an advantage? Or might knowledge of one language actually be a hindrance in learning to read in another, very different, language? [Read more…]

Workshop on Bilingualism and Executive Function: An Interdisciplinary Approach

18-19 May 2015, New York

Bilingualism Matters researchers Dr. Thomas Bak and Prof. Antonella Sorace joined language scientists and cognitive psychologists from around the world to discuss the relationship between speaking more than one language, and other mental skills such as the ability to focus attention or switch between tasks. These skills are often referred to as “executive function”.

There are many different ways of testing this sort of ability. For example, one common task for children involves asking them to sort cards first by the picture they show, and then by the colour of that picture – ignoring the picture itself. A common task for adults involves asking them to imagine they are in a lift, or elevator. When they hear a high pitch tone they count down one floor, and when they hear a low pitch tone they count up one floor – this forces people to ignore the usual association between high pitch tones and moving or counting upwards. [Read more…]

Two languages on the tip of your tongue

We’ve all had the experience of being sure that we know a word but struggling to remember it, no matter how hard we try. This sensation is called a ‘tip-of-the tongue state’, and researchers are interested in it because it can tell us more about how people bring to mind (or ‘retrieve’) words.

Research on bilingualism has looked at tip-of-the-tongue states, and one of the things that emerged from these studies is that bilingual speakers are more likely to experience such states than monolinguals. This is not due to a lack of vocabulary: bilinguals truly know the right word – they just find it harder to retrieve it. Why is that?

[Read more…]

Growing up bilingual: quality of exposure, not just quantity, matters!

The amount of time that children spend listening to each of their languages, be it their parents’ two languages in bilingual families, or the family and the community language, has a huge influence on how quickly they develop their language skills. So, quantity matters!

Does quality matter, too? This is less clear. Partly this is because less research has been conducted on this topic, and partly because of the huge range of experiences that children face when growing up bilingual. Quantity is easy to define and measure. By contrast, measuring quality is hard: there are many different factors that could make the language experience of one bilingual child qualitatively different from the language experience of another. [Read more…]

Do young children know that people can understand more than one language?

Can infants understand that people might be able speak more than one language, and are bilingual infants more likely to understand this than a monolingual ones? These are interesting questions, because understanding that people may speak more than one language is likely to help infants adapt more easily to their linguistic environments, and help them interact more easily with other people.

Researchers at New York University and McGill University recently explored these questions by observing how bilingual and monolingual 20 month-olds reacted to communicative situations. [Read more…]

Late language learners show improved mental agility

Learning a second language can boost cognitive performance even in late learners, suggests a new study.

Researchers from Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh tested the mental agility of almost 200 university students, divided into those who did or did not study modern languages. Results showed that the linguists showed more improvement in thinking skills than the non-linguists.

Students were asked, for example, to switch between counting upwards and downwards (to measure their attention switching abilities), or to name as many words beginning with a certain letter (to measure their verbal fluency). The results of first year students were compared with those of fourth year students, in order to measure the improvement in thinking skills that students acquired over the course of a degree. For both the language students and the monolingual humanities students, fourth year students scored significantly higher in verbal fluency than first year students, thus confirming the benefits of general learning (regardless of subject). However, the students on modern languages courses showed significantly more improvement in their ability to switch attention than their monolingual peers, suggesting an additional cognitive boost when we learn another language. [Read more…]

What quieres you decir? Bilingual children are better at understanding communicative intentions.

There can often be a gap between what someone says (their utterance), and what they mean (their communicative intention). For example, there is a subtle but very important difference between the remark “it is cold here”, uttered by a Spanish tourist on arriving in Edinburgh for the Festival, and the implicit request “it is cold here”, uttered by your office mate on entering the office, noticing the window is open, and politely suggesting you should close it.

Understanding intentions is critical to communicative success, and adult speakers can (usually!) make the required inference that they ought to shut the window in order to keep the peace. However, this ability takes some time to acquire – very small children are not able to draw this kind of inference. [Read more…]

Bilingualism and brain lateralization of attentional networks

Different sides of the brain specialize in different tasks. For example, language processing usually takes place in the left side of the brain, whereas attention is thought to take place mostly in the right side of the brain. This division of labour between the different brain hemispheres is called lateralization. Some researchers have suggested that if people practice a particular skill until they become very good at it, then that skill may become less lateralized (i.e., it will be more spread out between the two sides of the brain, rather than concentrated in a single side).

One area where bilinguals have been shown to outperform monolinguals is attention – for example, someone who speaks Spanish and English has had a lot of practice of attention-sapping tasks, such as switching between two languages, or ignoring Spanish words when speaking English. [Read more…]