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…]

Short-term language learning aids mental agility

Mental agility can be boosted by even a short period of learning a language, suggests a new study by Bilingualism Matters researchers.

Students aged 18 – 78 were tested on their attention levels before and after a one-week intensive Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. Researchers compared these results with those of people who completed a one week course that did not involve learning a new language, and with a group who did not complete any course.

At the end of the week, participants on the language course performed significantly better than those who did not take any course. This improvement was found for learners of all ages, from 18 to 78 years. There was no difference between those who took a non-language course and those who took no course.

Researchers also found that these benefits could be maintained with regular practice. Nine months after the initial course, all those who had practised five hours or more per week improved from their baseline performance. [Read more…]

Skye is the limit – or, the power of mad ideas

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas 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).

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to you great but scarily mad, something that really excited you but you didn’t dare to share even with your closest friends? Well, that’s how I felt two years ago, when it suddenly crossed my mind that we could test attention in people attending a one-week Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. The idea did not come out of nothing: by then, we had already analysed the data from a study subsequently published in Cognition [1]. There we found that first year students of modern languages and of other humanities (English literature, history etc) performed equally well in a test of attentional switching at the beginning of their studies. However, by the end of the fourth year the language students, by then quite fluent in their chosen language, outperformed their colleagues from other faculties. [Read more…]

Research is not only sitting in front of your computer for hours

I am doing my PhD in Linguistics at Edinburgh. However, I’ve just found myself travelling to a big island in the Mediterranean Sea, meeting people with striking linguistic backgrounds and chatting about my research with enthusiastic listeners. I also happened to eat ravioli with mint and cheese (“culurgiones”), and sweets made of boiled grape (“thiriccas”), and of ricotta and saffron (“pardulas”). If any or all of the above sound appealing to you, here’s how I came to Sardinia to test bilingual speakers of my own language – Italian – and their own – Sardinian.

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

[Read more…]

New funded project on multilingualism

We are delighted to announce that Bilingualism Matters deputy director Dr Thomas Bak is Co-Investigator on a major new project on multilingualism.

The four year project, “Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS)”, will seek to understand multilingualism through a range of interdisciplinary research themes – from literature, film and culture, to diversity and social cohesion. Dr Thomas Bak will lead a strand on cognition, health and well-being. The researchers will cover languages taught as part of a modern languages curriculum in the UK (e.g. French, German, Mandarin, Spanish), European minority languages (e.g. Catalan, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Ukrainian), and community languages (e.g. Cantonese, Polish, Punjabi).

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Open World Research Initiative which aims to raise the profile and visibility of Modern Languages and the crucial role they play in society.

More information:
Find out more about the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative, including other funded projects: Open World Research Initiative

Sceptics and believers – or, how to find a path through confounding variables in bilingualism research

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas 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).

Parents often tend to be impressed by their children and I am certainly no exception. Today at the breakfast table my wife asked my 3-year old daughter what is in the spotty bag she was holding in her hands. My daughter’s answer was: “I am not entirely sure”. This made me speechless: not only because of the rather fancy word “entirely”, but also because suddenly I realised that this short sentence expresses something that I have been missing a lot in the recent “bilingualism debate”. [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…]

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…]

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…]

Code-switching in Italian-English bilingual children

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are looking for children aged 7 – 11 years and who speak both English and Italian on a daily basis. The children will take part in games to shed light on the process of code-switching, or swapping between languages, in primary school aged children.

In recent years, a lot of work has been done to investigate what happens when bilinguals alternate between languages in a conversation (a phenomenon known as “code-switching”. But research so far has mostly been limited to adults. This study will be one of the first to gather data on how children use and perceive code-switching in conversations.

Take part in the study

Bilingual Italian and English children will be asked to play two games in a familiar setting.

In the first activity, children will look at cartoons while listening to conversations in Italian and English; in the second activity, children will describe a series of pictures.

Parents or carers will also be asked to complete a short questionnaire about their child’s language experiences.

If your family would be interested in taking part, or simply finding out more about the study, please contact the lead researcher on the study Dino Selvaggi

Testing will take place in Edinburgh from 27th April to 19th May. Please note that participation in this study is voluntary and unpaid.