Recent research linking the ability to speak more than one language to better cognitive performance and delayed onset of dementia brings an exciting dimension to research on multilingualism and a new motivation for language learning. The benefits of multilingualism might even extend to children and adults with cognitive challenges such as autism, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia. We ask:
Our methodology will combine quantitative and qualitative approaches. Jointly with S1 and S3, we will explore from a humanities perspective the political, ideological and social factors which impact on attitudes to ML in society. We will demonstrate that a critical understanding of these factors is crucial for the interpretation of recent findings in cognitive neuroscience. Using questionnaires we will investigate attitudes to language learning in general, and to specific languages in particular, in language learners of all ages recruited via S3-6. Our research will also broaden the range of languages analysed in MEITS (e.g. Bengali, Welsh).
The cognitive effects of language learning in late adulthood will be investigated using experimental methodology, building on a successful pilot study at Edinburgh (UoE). Recruitment of participants will be facilitated by Age UK and the University of the Third Age. We will allocate participants to different courses of the same duration and intensity, including either learning languages or non-linguistic skills. To explore effects of linguistic distance and modality we will use spoken and signed languages, and will measure cognitive functions thought to be modulated by multilingualism before and after the intensive learning practice.
For our final research question we will compare bilingual and monolingual children with autism, using established and novel cognitive and social assessments to determine whether bilingual advantages found in typically-developing children are also found in the population with autism. We will collaborate with partners nationally (e.g. Autism Research Centre, Cambridge) and internationally (Belgium, Poland and Spain) so that we can compare individual differences as well as societal contexts. For the older population with MCI and dementia, we will use an adapted version of the language learning programme described above. Alongside our non-HEI partners, we will work with families affected by the conditions. Health workers from over 20 NHS Trusts have already had input into the study design and RQs.