Could anyone become perfectly bilingual?

Antonella Sorace

More than half the world speaks two or more languages fluently. And yet being bilingual is a label often reserved for native speakers who learn multiple languages as children. Can you both 'be' and 'become' bilingual?

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Are you bilingual? Or do you wish you were? The dominance of English as the global language often means native speakers often lose the motivation - and therefore the brain and social benefits - of speaking a second language. The good news is that research shows anyone can become bilingual at any stage of life.

Over half the world speaks a second language but for many people where English is their mother tongue, being fluent in another language is an aspiration rather than a reality. Being bilingual brings many benefits beyond being able to communicate in another language. Bilingualism is beneficial for children’s development, including accelerated progress in reading and learning other languages more easily later in life. Being bilingual also creates more of an awareness of different cultures, people and points of view.

But being fluent in another language is not just beneficial for children. More recent research also shows that adult second language learners experience slower cognitive ageing and delayed onset of dementia symptoms.

In this Garden Talk, Antonella Sorace, a world expert on experimental linguistics and bilingualism, shares her insights into how we develop language over our lifespans and how anyone, at any age, can become bilingual. She busts some myths about what bilingualism is and who can 'be' and 'become' bilingual, and shares some of the research into what happens in the brain, in how we use language and in our interactions in the world, when we speak two languages fluently.

Member Questions answered by Antonella:

  • If parents speak different languages, should they be speaking consistently in their native language to their children?

  • What are the benefits and the challenges of knowing more than one language?

  • Is there any known difference in the structure of the brain between a bilingual and monolingual?

  • You mentioned that bilingual adults can better focus and switch from one task to another, do you think that they could use language learning as a way to treat adult attention disorders like ADHD?

  • Is the ability to learn a second language (as an adult) a function of intelligence, or are the two things unconnected?

  • I keep forgetting words and phrases in my native language after learning a second one. What could be the reason?

  • Does knowing more than one language have a benefit for preventing dementia?

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Talk outline


50 minutes


Evolution of Language

About the Fellow

Antonella Sorace

Antonella Sorace is Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh & a world expert in bilingualism.

Thank you notes from Garden members

Evolution of Language Collection

How do languages evolve?  From the origins of language to bilingualism, this series journeys into the mysteries of this uniquely human trait and the power it has to change our world.

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