MEITS Blog


On the effects of bi-/multilingualism

by Mariana Vega-Mendoza

Being part of the MEITS project has provided me with the opportunity to work with a fantastic team of researchers and address the important topic of multilingualism. Taking Europe as an example, it is estimated that over half of the population are able to speak a second language at the conversational level (European Commission, 2012) and this pattern seems to be growing throughout the years. But what are the implications of such trends?

Over the past decades, globalisation has led to increased awareness of the importance of learning languages. Some of the benefits of learning languages are well-known and typically uncontested. From a personal point of view, having learned a second language has enabled me to access different opportunities. To mention a few, studying abroad in two different countries, teaching my first language in a different country, and being able to carry out research across various scientific communities. Speaking more than one language has also allowed me to meet and communicate with an uncountable number of people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I am sure that many of the readers will find these benefits familiar.

Beyond these more anecdotal aspects of language learning, a large body of research has suggested that bilingualism and language learning might shape and even improve cognitive functions. For example, some studies suggest that speaking more than one language can have beneficial effects on performance in certain cognitive tasks, in particular those involving executive functioning even after a short period of intensive language learning (Bak, Long, Vega-Mendoza, & Sorace, 2016). In addition, studies carried out with clinical populations have suggested that knowing more than one language can delay the onset of dementia by 4-5 years (e.g., Alladi et al., 2013) and that bilingualism might lead to better cognitive outcome after stroke than monolinguals (Alladi et al., 2016). Largely inspired by these and other findings, in strand 6 of MEITS “Multilingualism and cognition: implications for motivation, health and well-being”, we examine the effects of language learning on well-being across the lifespan. One of our research questions explores, for example, the benefits and challenges of language learning in autism, mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

The multidisciplinary nature of the MEITS project, the methodologies across strands (see for example our recent strands 3 and 6 joint workshop on sociolinguistics and cognitive perspectives on bilingualism), and the combination of different areas of knowledge within strand 6 (e.g., psychology, neurology, and linguistics) allow us to study the effects of language learning on cognitive functions across the lifespan and in clinical populations from different angles.

 

References

Alladi, S., Bak, T. H., Duggirala, V., Surampudi, B., Shailaja, M., Shukla, A. K., ... & Kaul, S. (2013). Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status. Neurology, 81(22), 1938-1944.

Alladi, S., Bak, T. H., Mekala, S., Rajan, A., Chaudhuri, J. R., Mioshi, E., ... & Kaul, S. (2016). Impact of bilingualism on cognitive outcome after stroke. Stroke, 47, 258-261.

Bak, T. H., Long, M. R., Vega-Mendoza, M., & Sorace, A. (2016). Novelty, challenge, and practice: the impact of intensive language learning on attentional functions. PLoS ONE, 11(4), e0153485.

European Commission. (2012). Europeans and their languages. Special Eurobarometer 386. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf

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