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.

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



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…]

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…]

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…]

My love of writing bilingual stories for children

Guest post by Tania Czajka (Le Petit Monde Puppet Theatre)

First of all, I want to say that since the day I have learned, I’ve always loved reading and writing. I remember very well the day when I could finally read a whole Oui-Oui book (Noddy in English). I was so excited!! I was going to learn lots of new things, enter worlds of stories I didn’t know! I also remember practising writing the letters of the alphabet in my special book. Fascinating it was!

With reading and mastering writing, came ideas which I put in short poems and I also illustrated them. By the age of 10, I had a wee collection of hand made books which I absolutely loved. This love for writing and reading has never left me. So when I moved to Scotland and – very gradually – improved my English, I naturally started writing children stories using both French and English. I had this strong desire to share my French language with young children but didn’t want to become a teacher.

So in 2008, I set up Le Petit Monde Puppet Theatre and decided my puppets would speak French. By then, I had a good understanding of both languages and could easily ‘jump’ from one to the other – like bilingual children do. So I wrote full bilingual scripts for my shows starring Lapin and his friends. [Read more…]

Celebrate Bilingualism & Languages at Edinburgh Fringe

The largest arts festival in the world is kicking off this weekend here in Edinburgh!

We’re excited that two of our directors at Bilingualism Matters have fantastic shows as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas that will challenge some commonly held notions about languages in modern society. Catch Antonella Sorace on 14th August ‘In Praise of Useless Languages‘ and Thomas Bak on 23rd August, ‘Is Monolingualism Making Us Ill?’.

For those of you looking for even more language treats, we’ve also been through the Fringe Programme in search of more shows that aim to celebrate languages and bilingualism, although be aware that inclusion doesn’t imply endorsement – so take a chance or check reviews! [Read more…]

How do people agree on when to switch between languages?

Research Digest by Michela Bonfieni

A recent study reveals how bilinguals who speak the same two languages implicitly agree with each other on when to switch between their languages. The study also shows that switching between languages in the middle of a conversation is as natural and systematic as any other aspect of language.

Bilingual speakers often use bits of their two languages in their sentences. For example, speaking about taxes and savings, two Spanish-English speakers may go about like this:

Speaker 1: “qué dinero?” (‘what money?’)

Speaker 2: “el dinero ese que nos van a dar with the taxes.” (‘the money that they’re going to give us with the taxes.’)

This behaviour is very frequent among bilinguals who live in contexts where both their languages are used. Researchers on bilingualism refer to this as ‘code-switching’, and have dedicated a lot of attention to understand the way it works. [Read more…]

Healthy Linguistic Diet

Post by Dr Thomas H Bak

UPDATE July 2017: Want to hear more? See Thomas Bak live and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas on Wednesday 23rd August. Click button below for full details.

See Thomas Bak at Edinburgh Fringe 2017

One of the things that I miss most in the current debates on bilingualism is the lack of interaction between cognitive and social scientists. Both disciplines do important work in this field, but it is very rare that they meet, exchange ideas and discuss their respective findings, let alone develop joint concepts and theories. This is one of the reasons why I was so delighted to be invited by the European Commission, Directorate General Education and Culture to join the meeting of the 4th Thematic Panel on Languages and Literacy in September 2016 in Brussels. This meeting as well as the subsequent one in January 2017, at which I was invited to give a keynote lecture, gave me a chance to interact directly with people coming from very different professional background, working with different populations and using different methodologies.

A particularly important encounter for me was that with Dina Mehmedbegovic, who gave a keynote lecture at the September 2016 meeting. Dina’s background is in school education and she has studied in detail the attitudes to minority languages in England and Wales, which she documented in her book published in 2011. One of the concepts she developed was that of a “healthy linguistic diet[Read more…]

Our Annual Event 2017

By: Mariana Vega-Mendoza & Madeleine Long

On Friday 12 May 2017, Bilingualism Matters hosted its Annual Event at the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Forum. The event brought together professionals and researchers from areas such as education, neuroscience, and policy as well as members of the public.

The programme kicked off with registration and networking followed by a wonderful schedule of short talks hosted by Àdhamh Ó Broin. The first talk was by the Centre Director, Prof Antonella Sorace, [Read more…]