“Breed Bilingual!” at the Edinburgh fringe

Antonella Sorace and Susan Morrison at the "Breed Bilingual" Edinburgh fringe show

What happens when you pack a world expert on bilingualism, a professional comedian and 80 enthusiastic audience members into a wind-battered yurt at the world’s largest arts festival?

We headed to the “Breed Bilingual” show in St. Andrew’s Square to find out.

On 17 August, Professor Antonella Sorace was joined by comedian Susan Morrison to discuss, debate, and disseminate the latest research into what bilingualism can do for us. Professor Sorace began by outlining the research behind the claim that bilingualism, far from confusing a child, can lead to cognitive, linguistic, and social advantages.

For example, did you know that when a baby is exposed to multiple languages during the final trimester of pregnancy, that baby will come into the world already sensitive to the different rhythms of those languages[1]? A far cry from the confusion that some people will arise if the child’s brain is “overloaded” by hearing too many languages too early in life.

“A real dialogue between academics and the public”

Questions from the audience ranged from “what if one parent does not speak the other parent’s language?” (Professor Sorace advises taking the opportunity to learn as much of the language as you can – it looks like there may be cognitive advantages even when you learn a language later in life , and it will definitely help with family dynamics); to “that’s all great for the bilingual households, but what can monolingual families do?” (one possibility is to try and take advantage of any multilingual child care facilities in your area).

The show was part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas in which leading academics lead lively discussions on the controversial and cutting-edge research in their fields. Engaging with the public in this way is hugely beneficial not only for the audience but for the academics presenting their work.

As Professor Sorace commented: “I find events like the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas both enjoyable and rewarding. There is a real dialogue with the audience and a sense in which information is exchanged in both directions – so people learn more about the facts and benefits of bilingualism and I learn more about the many different situations and types of bilingualism in real life.”

Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas was organised by the Beltane Public Engagement Network .
The shows were hosted by stand-up comic Susan Morrison .

A huge thanks to everyone involved!

[1] Byers-Heinlein, K., Burns, T. C., & Werker, J. F. (2010). The roots of bilingualism in newborns. Psychological Science, 21, 343-348

Q & A with Dr Thomas Bak

Dr Thomas Bak at Bilingualism Matters

If you are interested in bilingualism, chances are you have heard about Dr Thomas Bak’s work, suggesting that speaking another language may delay symptoms in dementia , and slow brain ageing in healthy adults .

Last week, Dr Bak kindly agreed to answer your questions on twitter. We have reproduced the conversation in full here, including some longer answers that had to be squashed into shorter twitter format. If you’re short on time, why not look at the collection of tweets on storify .

Full transcript


Ragged university, via twitter:
Are there significant health benefits long term to learning languages? I’m interested in dementia prevention activities

In terms of dementia, a large study from Hyderabad in India, published in 2013, suggests that bilinguals develop dementia 4-6 years later than monolinguals.

Jackie, via twitter:
What does Dr Bak think is the causal connection with Alzheimer’s Disease please?

The effects aren’t only true for Alzheimers, in fact we found that effects are larger in frontotemporal dementia. At the moment our best guess is that it involves attention/executive functions (see reply to Seralynne, below).

Seralynne, via email:
Can these effects be explained by differences in executive function?

Differences in executive function are currently the prevailing explanation, but other factors might play a role. In the Hyderabad study [where second language speakers showed a delay in the onset of dementia symptoms], the longest delay was observed in fronto-temporal demantia, which is usually characterised by executive dysfunction.

In the Lothian Birth Cohort study [where second language speakers showed better performance in cognitive tasks], the strongest effects were observed on tasks with high executive load. These findings support the idea that bilingualism has a particularly strong effect on executive functions.

The Lothian Birth Cohort study also went some way to show the direction of cause and effect, since we had records of people’s IQ aged 11. From these records, we know that it is not simply the case that having a higher IQ to begin with means you are more likely to learn a language and to show delays in brain ageing. It really seems to be something about learning a language that helps slow the signs of cognitive ageing.

Fiona, via twitter:
Do you think the level a person speaks their 2nd language matters? Is it the learning activity creating the effect?

There are different effects at different stages of learning. Higher proficiency is better but you don’t need to be perfect.

Chiara, via email:
Speaking 2nd language delays brain ageing: is this true only for early bilinguals, or do 2nd language learners benefit too?

Most research so far has been done on early bilinguals – i.e. people who grew up with two languages from a very early age. In our studies, we found similar effects in people who learnt a second language in adulthood, but it is true that we are only just starting to explore the effect of language learning in adults.

The Lothian Birth Cohort data, which we used in our recent 2014 paper about brain ageing is a great way of doing this. As I said to Fiona, you certainly don’t need to be perfectly fluent in order to reap the benefits, and it is never too late to start!

Fionna, via email:
Does learning a language with a different alphabet have any bearing?
Judith McClure from the Scotland-China Education Network, via email:
Does it matter how similar the two languages are? Is there any particular benefit to learning a language like Chinese, which requires you to learn a different writing system?

At present there is very little research on written language and different alphabets. A lot of work still to be done! Madeleine (from Bilingualism Matters) and I have a few papers looking at the different languages studied in research into language loss following stroke, brain injury or dementia, and there is a massive bias towards Western European languages. So the short answer is, we don’t know – but we should be trying to find out!
Regarding similarity between languages, again, the short answer is that we don’t know. One of the questions that the major EU “AThEME” project will be looking at over the next five years is the effect of learning two similar languages (e.g. English and French) compared with two very different languages (e.g. English and Chinese). So keep your eyes peeled for updates!

Age UK, via email:
Should we make foreign languages compulsory in secondary education?

There certainly do seem to be advantages in terms of brain health, as well as all the cultural and economic advantages (a lack of language skills costs the UK economy billions of pounds a year!). Personally, I would say that encouraging language learning at any stage of education is a good idea. The earlier you start, the easier it is to learn. That is one reason why the UK and Scottish government’s commitment to language learning in primary schools is so important.

Vicky, via twitter:
Hi Dr Bak. What can people who don’t speak another language do? Would another skill like learning a musical instrument help?

The quick answer is yes, language learning is only one type of beneficial mental activity. There are many others, music being one. Work by Denise Park suggests that engaging in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances cognitive function in older adults. In other words, any cognitively demanding activity can be beneficial and rewarding – learning a language is a good example, and so is learning the piano.

Ian, via email:
Are dementia rates higher in bilingual countries like Switzerland?

Interesting question, but we need to keep a few things in mind.
The first is that our work looked at the onset of dementia symptoms, not the frequency of dementia. It’s a subtle difference. Rather than looking at how many people have dementia, we looked at people who we know have dementia, and asked at what age did they start to show symptoms? This is important because the longer you can delay the onset of symptoms, the better quality of life that individual is likely to have.

The second thing to keep in mind is that it is extremely difficult to compare different countries, because the number of official languages is not the only difference. There are also differences in lifestyle and healthcare which we would need to take into account.

Thirdly, we need to separate the individual from the country. For example, just because Switzerland has more than one official language, it does not follow that everyone living in Switzerland speaks all of those languages. Similarly, other countries may only have one official language, but there may be many citizens who speak multiple languages in that country.

In fact, according to recent figures by Wimo et al. (2010), Switzerland has one of the highest rates of dementia in Europe. Although these figures are only a best guess and should be treated with some caution. As we said above, it is extremely difficult to make any kind of meaningful comparison between countries.

Ragged university, via twitter:
I know you specialize in studying the effects of speaking more than one language. What are the myths associated?

Good question! There are two opposing myths.

The first is that bilingualism is damaging, strongly believed for much of the 20th century. It was even believed that bilingual education causes schizophrenia!
The second is that bilingualism helps with everything – over the last ten years the pendulum has swung the other way and some people believe that bilingualism can prevent dementia completely and improve all cognitive functions.

The reality is that bilingualism seems to have beneficial effects on some cognitive functions, but there can also be cognitive costs associated with it. For example, bilinguals often need longer on lexical decision tasks (deciding if a word is real or not), possibly because they have a much larger combined vocabulary to screen through. In our view, the benefits by far outweigh the costs!

Jackie, via twitter:
Does the language have to be verbal? Would learning to code – effectively computer language – work?

Hmm, that is hard to answer and as far as I know no research comparing effect of speaking second (human) language and computer coding, However, writing code does not have the same communicative and possibly attentional aspects (e.g., switching between vocabulary in English and Chinese), so I would guess the effects would not be as strong. However, it is true that any engaging, cognitively demanding task has been shown to be beneficial (see response to Vicky), so we certainly can’t rule it out!

Speakita, via twitter:
What’s the best way to teach children a second language? Any advice about songs, books, games and activities?

The most important thing is motivation, so keep it fun. Playgroups can be a great resource – see the Bilingualism Matters local resources page

Speakita, via twitter:
So would it be useless to plan some online activities? Like a parent-child online class?
Judith McClure, via email:
Does online learning give similar benefits, or is face to face communication key?

In my view online tasks can be a useful addition but they are unlikely to replace personal contact as the best way of learning a language. Although you don’t need to be perfectly fluent in a language to gain the cognitive benefits, these benefits do seem to increase as you get more proficient. And face to face communication is really important in order to increase your confidence in that respect. However, it is certainly worth doing online activities in order to learn certain vocabulary or grammatical structures in the first place. Just try and make sure you practice them on a real person eventually 🙂

Bilingualism Matters at Edinburgh Fringe – tickets out now!

breed bilingual

The crowds of summer school students have begun congregating on North Bridge, the pop-up ice cream stalls are ready to go, and the programme for this year’s Fringe festival has been released. It can only mean one thing: Summer has come to Edinburgh!

With 1000s of shows to choose from, how do you decide what merits a second glance? Well, for anyone interested in bilingualism and language learning, there is one show not to be missed.

Breed Bilingual is part of the hugely successful Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, in which Scotland’s leading researchers come forward to challenge assumptions and debunk myths.

On 17th August, Professor Antonella Sorace, director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre in Edinburgh, will lead a lively and informative debate about the benefits of speaking more than one language.

Tickets are only £5, so don’t miss out on this fantastic discussion.

For tickets and more information, see the fringe website: Breed Bilingual at the Edinburgh fringe

For information about other shows in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, visit their website or search for #codi on twitter: Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas 2014

New branch of Bilingualism Matters in Croatia

Volunteers at the opening of new Bilingualism Matters branch in Rijeka, Croatia

The latest branch of Bilingualism Matters opened on June 6th in Rijeka, Croatia. Professor Antonella Sorace travelled from the Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh to attend the launch and lead a training event with local volunteers.

During the launch, Professor Sorace gave a lecture entitled “Child bilingualism: facts, benefits and challenges” to an audience including teachers, parents, health visitors, business leaders, and local government officials. Other speakers included officials from the University of Rijeka, the city office, and the head of the International office in the Croatian Ministry of Science, Education and Sports. Alongside the speeches were performances from a choir of primary school students singing in Italian, a local dialectal poet, and the Rijeka Youth (TRY) Theatre.

The director of the new branch, Dr Tihana Kras, said: “We are thrilled in the huge level of interest shown at all levels of society, which bodes well for the future of multilingualism in Croatia.”

The new branch is being set up as part of the AThEME project on multilingualism in Europe.

You can read more about the AThEME project in general by visiting the AThEME website:
Advancing the European Multilingual Experience (AThEME) .

You can read more about Bilingualism Matters’ role in the project by visiting our projects page:
Bilingualism Matters and Advancing the European Multilingual Experience (AThEME) .

East Lothian Pupils Learn Chinese

If you live in East Lothian, chances are that in a primary school near you is a group of pupils who love nothing better than running around the playground singing “happy Birthday to you” in Chinese.

On 12 June, over 400 primary school pupils, teachers and parents gathered in Musselburgh to celebrate the hugely successful Early Learning of Chinese project . There was singing, traditional Chinese dancing, and even a Chinese version of the hokey-cokey – no mean feat!

Since October 2013, primary 1 students across East Lothian have been learning to speak Mandarin. Volunteers from the University of Edinburgh have visited the schools to help teach children (and their teachers!) how to count, name colours, introduce themselves, and even write simple words in Chinese.

Promoting language learning in Scotland

The student volunteers were awarded certificates by Dr. Judith McClure from the Scotland-China Education Network, to thank them for their contribution to the project.


The hard work of the children, their teachers and parents was also praised by Fhiona Fisher of Scotland’s National Centre for languages: “the Early Learning of Chinese project is a great example of how we can work together to ensure that all Scottish children have access to learning a new language”.

She noted that a primary motivation for learning a new language is the recent University of Edinburgh research showing that speaking a second language can slow brain aging . Ms Fisher then thanked all the organisations involved in the project, including Bilingualism Matters.

“The most important thing is to have fun!”

Friedericke Sell is a Bilingualism Matters researcher who is comparing the pupils involved in the project with those who did not learn a new language this year. According to Friedericke, the success of the project is due to one thing: making learning fun. From visiting the pandas at Edinburgh zoo, to celebrating Chinese New Year; from dressing up to playing games – not forgetting that hokey-cokey! “The fact that children are having fun means they are learning without realising it, the way we learn our own language” explains Friedericke.

Of course, we are not expecting all these pupils to leave primary school speaking fluent Mandarin. But bilingualism is not just about those who speak a second language perfectly, from a very young age. It’s about everyone who uses another language, no matter when or where we learnt it. And these children are well on their way to using Chinese. The ultimate proof? Mr Zhang Huazhong, Deputy Chinese Consul General, attended the event and understood every word of the children’s Mandarin.



Speaking two languages may slow brain aging

Bilingualism has hit the headlines this week with the news that learning a second language might bring cognitive benefits in later life – even when that second language is acquired in adulthood.

The study was led by Dr. Thomas Bak at the University of Edinburgh, whose other work suggests that bilingualism might delay the onset of dementia. The current study looked at tests such as verbal fluency, in 835 native English-speakers aged 70 or older. Of these participants, 195 people had learnt a second language before 18, and 65 had learnt a second language after 18. The researchers compared people’s scores on the tests aged 70 with their IQ scores age 11.

The results showed that people who spoke a second language performed better on the tests than would be predicted from their early IQ results, relative to their monolingual peers. There were no differences between early versus late second language learners. In other words, learning a second language may slow brain aging.

These findings are important because they can help us answer the question of cause and effect. There are two possible reasons why bilinguals might show an advantage on cognitive tests. The first possibility is that people who have better cognitive ability to begin with are more likely to go on and learn another language. The second possibility is that learning a second language improves people’s cognitive ability. This study suggests that the second possibility is more likely – bilinguals did better on the tests than their childhood IQ scores would have predicted.

The fact that learning a language in adulthood seems to give the same advantage as learning a language in childhood is a highly relevant in the UK, where many people think that bilingualism only refers to people who grew up speaking two languages equally well. In fact, the advantages of bilingualism are relevant to anyone who uses a second language, whether they learnt it in the family, at school, or later on in the workplace. As Dr. Thomas Bak says, “Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

The study has been widely reported in the media including articles on the BBC health section, as well as daily news sites such as the Telegraph, the Times of India , and the Huffington Post , and science-specific sites such as Medical News Today, Science Daily, and
NHS Choices.

The full study “Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?” was published online in the Annals of Neurology, on 2nd June 2014.

Bilingualism and Special Needs

bilingual mother and child


Adam Beck has compiled an incredibly helpful and inspiring list of resources on bilingualism and special needs, with many parents’ contributions about how bilingualism has lessened or alleviated the difficulties inherent to their children’s education.

Check it out here

UofE study on Bilingualism and Dementia takes the media by storm


A study about bilingualism and dementia led by the University of Edinburgh’s own Thomas Bak, in partnership with Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India has taken the media by storm.

It has been reviewed and reported in over a hundred media sources, including national networks such as the BBC and NBC news, CBS and SPS, dailies such as the Huffington Post and the Times of India and the Japan Times  and health web platforms such as the NHS or Health24, or scientific publications such as the New ScientistScienceDaily and the National Geographic.

The study, published in the American magazine Neurology, surveyed over 600 patients and found that on average, bilingual patients developed dementia 4.5 years later than monolingual ones, irrespective of educational achievement, sex, profession or lifestyle. This is the first study of its kind to include illiterate subjects, showing that bilingualism is a health asset for anyone. The study was even reported by the Daily Mail, which reads that being bilingual could be better than any currently available medication as a cure for dementia.

It is encouraging to see how widely this publication has been received, we hope that it will encourage parents to protect their linguistic heritage and teach their children to do the same.

Tromsø International Conference on Language Diversity

Tromso International Conference on Language Diversity

Antonella Sorace sat on the panel of a debate about linguistic diversity and education in the Tromsø International Conference on Language Diversity. The Conference took place on 7th November 2013 as part the Norwegian Language Year. 

For more information about the Norwegian language Year, visit the Språkåret 2013 website.

Conference Program

The conference boasted a lively and engaging program, including:

  • six internationally renowned keynote speakers
  • three invited workshops
  • two accepted thematic workshops
  • two panel discussions
  • a panel debate
  • almost 40 exiting general session papers drawing on a variety of languages and language situations
  • To learn more about the conference and to watch the keynote speeches and panel discussions click here.

    University of Edinburgh

    The University was well-represented at the conference. Professor Sorace also led a workshop about “Bilingualism, Biliteracy and Cognition” with Yulia Rodina from Tromsø University.
    Students Mariana Vega-Mendoza and Holly West, and lecturer Dr. Thomas Bak were present to talk about their work on late unbalanced bilingualism.
    Dr. Fiona O’Hanlon from the University’s Celtic and Scottish studies department presented the case of Gaelic-medium education in Scotland.

    Hermitage Park Primary School

    Bilingualism Matters will visit Hermitage Park Primary School in Edinburgh on 7 June 2013.