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, aligned with the “healthy diet” and “healthy schools initiative”. I was stunned: the idea was so close to the healthy diet metaphor I have been using in many media interviews when explaining the positive effects of bilingualism on cognition. Much of the research in this field is striving to identify one crucial factor, which determines differences between mono- and bilinguals on psychological tests as well as in real life (e.g. in terms of onset of dementia or the recovery from stroke). Such an approach stands very much in the tradition of analytic science, searching for clear, parsimonious and unequivocal explanations of the observed phenomena. But by simplifying and reducing complex phenomena, it might also miss the most important aspects.

Diet is per definition more than a sum of its ingredients. The much-discussed Mediterranean diet cannot be reduced to olives or olive oil, tomatoes, salad, or red wine. It is a combination of it all (the same applies of course to many other diets, such as the Japanese, Chinese or Korean). Likewise, I would argue, the cognitive stimulation of language learning and its lifelong use is much more than the sum of sounds, words and sentences; it goes all the way, from basic perception, through different concepts, ways of thinking and expressing one’s thoughts to different social norms and codes. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to isolate one factor explaining all effects of bilingualism or find one cognitive tests which can measure all that is relevant.

Dina and I decided to put together our ideas in a joint paper, presenting the concept of a healthy linguistic diet in a lifetime perspective, from early development and school education to cognitive ageing and coping with brain diseases. It was a fascinating journey for us both and we hope that the resulting paper will be informative, entertaining and thought-provoking. We were fortunate to have it published in the first issue of a new journal “Language, Society and Policy”, which intends to bridge the gap between academics on one side and general public and policy makers on the other: an initiative supported by the AHRC Open World Initiative Grant: Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS). We hope this is just the first step towards integrating our respective disciplines and are already looking forward to working more together in future. Hopefully, this is just a beginning.

Bak, TH, Mehmedbegovic D (2017) Healthy Linguistic Diet: the value of linguistic diversity and language learning across the lifespan. Language, Society and Policy, Vol 1. DOI: doi:10.17863/CAM.9854.

Mehmedbegovic, D. 2011. ‘A study in attitudes to minority languages in England and Wales’. Lambert Academic Publishing, Berlin.


Thomas Bak and Dina Mehmedbegovic, at the launch of the “Language, Society and Policy” Journal at the British Academy in London on 23 May 2017.



  1. Dina Mehmedbegovic says:

    Thank you for your insightful post Thomas – I would like to add that I am truely excited about the potential of our joint work. Our efforts to bring together evidence from clinical research on cognitive benefits of language learning and research into attitudes to a range of languages related issues aim to show in a very powerful way that engagment with developing plurilingual competencies holds an answer to a variety of modern day living complexities: from better academic performance across the curriculum to equipping ourselves with cognitive reserves essential in prolonging a dementia free existence.
    Significant efforts are needed to reach out not only to politicians and policy makers, front line practitioners (school leaders, teachers, health workers), but also to families, individuals, children who often do not see the value of bilingualism or their home languages. We are focused on offering an approach relevant and accessible to all these groups of stakeholders. Our approach: Healthy Linguistic Diet, which is underpinned by interdisciplinary evidence so powerful, that it can make a true difference to individuals, families, communities and entire societies.
    Through the work we have done with the EU Commission we are already seeing our recommendations making their way into official proposals (Rethinking language education in schools, EU Commission report, a link will be available soon) and we are looking for more opportunities to reach out to a range of stakeholders. This month two important events at which we will further disseminate our ideas on Healthy Linguistic Diet: University of Oxford Symposium Education in an uncertain world and University of Cambridge seminar Multilingualism and well-being. We look forward to hearing from other academic and non-academic institutions and agencies interested in making the most of the existing and potential language capital.

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