Transcript: Could anyone become perfectly bilingual?

Antonella Sorace

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Hello, I'm Antonella Serraj. I'm a professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. And today I'm going to talk about bilingualism and language learning. This is my Garden talk. So my research is indeed about bilingualism over the lifespan, bilingualism and language learning. Uh, so we study young Children, babies who learn two languages together from birth. We study Children who learn one language first and then another. But during childhood we study young adults who learn a foreign language, for example, university.

And we also study older adults who start learning a language, for example, in their retirement years. So we are interested in knowing what happens, uh, in the mind of someone who has more than one language. And in fact, I would like to start by defining what I mean by bilingual, because the prefix by usually means to or both so bilateral bidirectional bisexual by et cetera. But the way I'm using the term bilingual I used to mean more than one so bilingual includes trilingual, for example, or quadri, lingual or indeed polyglot out or indeed, hyper polyglot dot In this respect, some of you may have heard or read in the British papers recently about an interview with a guy who says that he knows 50 languages, 50, 50 languages.

And he says that he uses he normally uses 15 languages a week and more than 30 a year. So this is a rather amazing story, right? So you may be wondering, Well, you know, uh, is this guy a real human or does it come from another planet? Well, actually, he's not a Martian. His brain as well. See, it's like yours and mine. Um, so some people are you not especially talented or they have the right circumstances to learn more than one language or indeed, many languages, uh, and some other people don't, and we'll come back to this point.

But another question that may arise about this special guy who speaks 50 languages Does he speak all 50 languages to the same level? Uh, does he speak them perfectly? And the answer is, Of course not. And this is what I'm going. I'm going to explain, uh, that the perfect bilingual or the perfect multi lingual, uh, doesn't exist. So the perfect bilingual is not the sum of two monolingual monolingual in language, a monolingual in language b and then c d a. And so on. Um, because one can be Bilin single and multi lingual in many different ways.

There are different ways, different bilingual experiences and so we can consider bilingualism as a kind of continuum, um, of different kinds of experiences. So having done this definition, um, bilingualism and multilingualism is normal in the world. It really is the norm, but in our kind of societies. So in the so called Anglo Sphere So the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, where English is, uh, the the main language, the national language. But also in many Western European countries that have a national language, bilingualism is not regarded as normal.

Um, and, uh, in, uh, in in the so called Anglo Sphere, people don't have much of a motivation to learn languages precisely because they think, oh, everybody speaks English. Why do we need to learn languages? And in other non English speaking countries, equally English is the language that everybody wants their Children to learn. So I'm going to show you. I'm going to say that all languages matter. All languages are important for the brain, and not just the most prestigious ones the most economically more viable ones and so on.

All languages are good, so there are many misconceptions about bilingualism in society. Um, and what I'm going to show you is the counter arguments that come from research. What does research say about these misconceptions? So we'll start from Children, and then we'll move on to adults. So starting from Children, bilingual Children. So there are many misconceptions about bilingual Children that we hear all the time. There are many people who think that if you give two languages too early to a child, the child becomes confused.

So a bilingual child may not speak any language properly. So wouldn't it be better to wait until the first language is well established before you give another language to a child? So the idea of confusion also the idea of problems at school. So if a child comes from a different comes from a different language background. Uh, it's predicted to have problems at school if schooling is in the new language in the language of the new community. So, uh, this, uh, you know, anticipation that a bilingual child is not going to do very well at school, so there are many misconceptions.

What does research actually say? This is where things become interesting. First of all, the idea of confusion is really not well founded at all, because we know from research that even a very young child can distinguish between their languages. And when I've been young child, I mean even a newborn. What does that mean? It means that if a child an unborn child before birth, here's more than one language in the environment when an unborn child can hear a fair amount of what goes on in the environment, that child comes to the world with a special sensitivity those to those to those two languages, obviously long before they learn words long before they learn a grammar of the language.

So that sensitivity is to the sounds of the two languages to the rhythm of the two languages. But that sensitivity is there, and then, you know, when we look at the way, uh, these two languages develop in bilingual Children, and we compare them with monolingual Children. We see some differences, of course, but we also see many more similarities than differences. So a bilingual child is not special in developmental terms. Um, So, uh, we see that, uh, the idea of a bilingual child having problems or anticipating problems is really not there.

But research actually tells us something more. It tells us that growing up with more than one language can give chilled benefits that go beyond the knowledge of languages. What are these benefits? Well, one benefit is about knowledge of language. A better spontaneous, natural understanding of how any language works of how language works in general. Um, this council, from the fact that a bilingual child grows up with more than one language in the brain, and so that leads to a better natural understanding of how how language and languages work in general.

And that means that when it comes to learning a third language or 1/4 language, it becomes easier. It's easier to learn a third language if you already have two than to learn a second language when you only have one. So better language learning abilities, but also a better understanding of the language of schooling. For example, remember the misconception that a bilingual child may have problems at school? Well, actually, if a bilingual child goes to school, learn enough, learns enough of the of the of the language of schooling.

And the school offers a a positive environment and encouraging environment. That child potentially understands the language of schooling better and more easily than a monolingual child who grew up with that language. So a very, very interesting linguistic advantages there are also there is research that shows that a bilingual child may have an easier way into early literacy. So what I mean by this is learning to read. For example, and particularly, research has been done on learning to read an alphabet alphabetic languages like English like Italian, like many others.

So the key factor in learning to read any alphabetic language is the fact that printed letters correspond to sounds of the spoken language, and a bilingual child gets that factor. You know that basic principle more easily than a monolingual child by by virtue of the fact of being bilingual and heavy more than one language so advantages for early literacy. But there are also advantages, potential benefits outside language. A very interesting one is the fact that a bilingual child understands earlier.

Then it is that it is possible to have a different perspective on things it's possible to to have a different point of view from their own. Uh, this is a very important developmental stage in all Children. All Children are naturally very egocentric at the beginning. They think they are the centre of the world, and they have to understand that, you know, it is possible to see things from a different perspective or to have different points of view. A bilingual child can get there earlier, and you may wonder why.

Well, it gets there earlier because, uh, they understand quite early on that not everybody is bilingual, and so they have to choose the right language, depending on who they're talking to. And that means embracing the other person's linguistic perspective, getting out of their own linguistic perspective and embracing the other person's linguistic perspective. Uh, and their linguistic experience can be extended outside the language domain and leads to a better understanding of other people's perspectives and points of view in general.

And this can only be a very strong advantage. So, um, there are both linguistic and cognitive benefits of child bilingualism. There are basically not known by society at large. What about adult bilinguals? Well, first of all, many people think that you can't really learn a language. Very well. If you're an adult, you have to be a child, right? To learn a language completely to learn a language. Well, actually, this is not true. We do research on, uh, adult bilinguals. And, uh, we know that it is possible to reach a very high level of competence in a second language.

We call these learners these adult speakers native, like or near native if you want. Um, and we specialise in studying these people. These people don't come from a different planet. Remember the the guy who speaks 50 languages? Uh, they're not Martians. They they are like us. Um, so it is possible to reach high levels. Not everybody reaches high levels. There is a lot more variation, uh, in among adult language learners than among Children learning languages. And this is also due to the fact that when you're an adult, well, you're busy.

You have many things to do in your life. You may have a family. You have a job, you have a job, you have other things to do. And so you may not enjoy the full immersion. That choice child a bilingual child enjoys, uh, and so you may have less time to learn a language, so there is a lot more variation. But what we see is a normal distribution of abilities. So on the one hand, you have people who are very, very good, like the guy with 50 languages. On the other hand, the other extreme, you have people who are not very good, so or not particularly, they don't enjoy the good circumstances to learn languages.

And in the middle. That's where most of us are. We are in the middle of a normal distribution, so it is possible to learn a language very well indeed. But it's also possible to get benefits that go outside language if you learn a language as an adult. So one of these benefits is, for example, I mentioned the fact that Children learn to, uh, they know that people can have a different perspective from their own. Well, adults obviously have reached that developmental stage, but it has been found by research that they can move from their own egocentric perspective to the other person's perspective more faster so they can embrace the other person's perspective more quickly.

Um, and that, you know, can be an advantage. Think of, you know, political negotiations. Think of, you know, business discussions. Think how how useful it is to be able to understand the other person's perspective. Uh, and how, you know, uh, you know what might motivate proposals and so on and so forth. So it's a It's a great potential benefit. Another benefit has to do with the control of attention. We have to pay attention to what we do, no matter what we do, because otherwise we don't do it well, right? So we have to pay focused attention on what matters and at the same time, ignore or try to ignore what doesn't matter.

So it has been found that bilingual adults are better at paying focus, that tension. They are better at ignoring irrelevant information. And they are also better at switching from one task to the other, which means refocusing attention to what matters for one task to what matters for a different kind of task. So where does that benefit come from? Well, it comes from the fact that when you have more than one language, you can't speak them at the same time. Obviously, So I'm speaking in English to you.

But my Italian, my French, my German are active in my brain, and my brain is actively trying to push them out. So this constant experience of you know, speaking one language and excluding the others is extended outside the language domain and leads to a better control of attention in general. And this doesn't mean that people bilingual people are more intelligent. It means that they have an extra gear that allows them to perform better in a variety of situations of everyday life. Of course, it's possible to have a sign language.

I'm not saying anything. If you have questions, I'll be happy to answer questions about by model bilingualism, where you have a spoken language and assigned language, and those in principle can be produced at the same time. In principle, let's leave this aside so, uh, potential benefits outside the language domain. So two things I want to say at this point this benefits. This research actually shows that all languages are good, so not only prestigious languages or important languages or economically viable languages are important.

Any language will do the trick because what matters is the fact of having more than one language in the brain. No matter which languages, minority languages, minority ties, languages, migrant languages. Any kind of law language matters from this point of view, so bilingualism does. It gives you not only cultural advantages, because remember that there is a culture behind every language. So if you're bilingual, you know elements of other cultures, even if you're not fully bicultural. But that's a great advantage indeed.

But there are additional potential advantages from the point of view of, uh, controlling attention as we as we saw. The second thing I want to say is that these advantages are not found all the time in all bilinguals in all studies about bilingualism, and this is because bilingualism can be very different. As we said, there are many different kinds of bilingual experiences, and we can consider bilinguals on a continuum that ranges from very little experience of another language to full fluency and command of, uh, of more than one language and any anywhere in the middle.

So what we are trying to understand better in research and we need a lot more research on this is the fact that different kinds of experiences can affect, you know, the presence of the benefits or the absence of these benefits. So attitudes, for example, what people think about languages. We did a study on bilingual Children, and we found that positive attitudes actually matter and determine whether we see these linguistic and cognitive advantages in Children. So Children sometimes don't have a positive attitude about their languages or they're being bilingual.

And so we have to encourage positive attitudes in society about bilingualism in any language is what about much older people that I mentioned at the beginning? Is it possible to learn a language in your seventies and you're ready in your eighties? Well, we can tell you that, uh, studies in this domain show that, uh, the brain reacts extremely well to the challenge of learning another language even at that age. So in non pathological situations, uh, older adults can actually make huge progress in learning another language.

Their brain responds very well, and they can get some benefits that can last if they practise the language often enough. So it is possible to learn languages, even. Obviously, if you start a language at 85 you don't have the time scale that a 20 year old has in front of you. But still you can benefit from the experience of learning a language and as well as the experience of learning other things. So I'm not saying that bilingualism is magic in any way. But what about pathological ageing? There is research on the influence of bilingualism on certain kinds of dementia, and it has been found that if people are unlucky enough to get dementia, the first symptoms of the disease appear between four and five year years later in Bilinguals.

Compared to monolingual four or five years, it may sound like a short time. It's an eternity if we're talking about autonomy, independents, independent life in people who will get sick. Uh, it doesn't mean that bilingualism can prevent dementia, and this is a big misunderstanding of research. But it means that it can delay the initial symptoms, not because it's magic. There may be other experiences that can have the same effect, but still, uh, bilingual is learning a language may be an easier and more accessible kind of experience that many other kinds of experiences in life, so everybody should be encouraged to learn more than one language in life.

So, uh, we've seen, uh that bilingualism can potentially give benefits that go beyond the cultural advantages, the linguistic advantage of knowing more than one language and should be encouraged at all stages. But people don't know this. And as I said at the beginning, there are many misconceptions. There isn't enough information about multilingualism and bilingualism, so that's why we should try to build bridges between research and society. And this is what we've been doing. 14 years ago, I founded a centre called Bilingualism Matters.

And the aim of bilingualism matters is precisely to build bridges between research and society, not only in the sense that we communicate research to society in the best in the most suitable way to people in all areas of society, but we also learn from people. As researchers, we learn to do research better. We learn to understand bilingualism better just by talking to people. We by getting in touch with their own experiences. So bilingualism matters is now quite big. Um, it has a huge international network.

We have more than 30 branches in three different continents, and this allows us not only to join research forces. Let's remember. But a complex phenomenon like bilingualism can't be approached from only one dimension. We need to collaborate. We need to work together with different kinds of expertise to understand the different facets, the different aspects of bilingualism over the lifespan and so interdisciplinary tion. Research is essential, so joining forces and bilingualism matters allows us to do do that.

But it also allows us to come up with the best public engagement strategies, the best ways of communicating research to people in in different political environments, different pairs of languages, uh, different countries and different contexts. So we learn to do this kind of science, communication, communication of research better than we would if we were only by ourselves. So bilingualism matters in all in all languages. This is the summary of what I said. All languages are important. All languages are valued.

All languages should be maintained. And to conclude this is particularly important because linguistic diversity in the world, which means cultural diversity as well, is disappearing very fast. It has been calculated that of approximately there are about 6000 or 7000 languages in the world. Nobody knows exactly how many of these languages uh, one language is dying every 2 to 3 weeks. One language is dying to every 2 to 3 weeks. What does it mean? The language is dying. It means that it's now It's not transmitted to the next generation.

Children stopped learning that language. When that happens, the language is bound to die. And that means a cultural dies. And languages are done faster and faster. So one more reason to encourage multilingualism is not only to get these potential benefits, but to ensure that linguistic diversity is maintained. For, you know, uh, for the welfare of humanity. Thank you. Thank you so much. Antonella. That was super fascinating. I learned so much, and we've got so many questions here, so I'm going to start with a few of them.

The first one is from Jonah. Who said, Is there any no difference in the structure of the brain between a bilingual and monolingual? Very good question. Thank you. Yes, there is. Um it has been found that, uh, the learning another language, like other kinds of experience, uh, causes the growth of matter. Grey matter in the brain, in particular, areas of the brain, even in adults, not just in Children, so the neurological structure of the brain changes. So one of the things that we're trying to understand more fully is the connection between neurological changes at the level of the brain and behavioural changes, which are the effects, the cognitive effects and the linguist.

The effects that I was describing before, but definitely there is a connection because, you know, the neurological changes happen in particular areas of the brain. And, uh, and, uh, needs to be better understood. But definitely it happens even in four languages learned later in life. Interesting. Okay, thank you for that. So if he wants to know that whether if parents that have different languages should be speaking consistently in their native language to their Children, do you think they should be doing that? I think that helps.

Um, there isn't a single best way to raise bilingual Children. And I, uh, I can I can tell you this with some experience. I have bilingual. I raised bilingual sons. So I know something about both the joys and the challenges of raising bilingual Children. Uh, so consistency helps because the child gets used to speaking one language with one parent and the other language with the other parent. But I can tell you that you know, there are many different ways. Many, you know, different ways. No old families are the same.

And so what suits my family may not be suitable for your family, for example. So just to give you an example from my family, we started with one parent, one language. My husband is American. He speaks Italian. Very well. Uh, so I was speaking Italian. He was speaking English, but then we decided to reinforce Italian. So he switched to Italian, and so Italian became the home language. And we left, uh, English for outside the home. And that worked very well for for a few years. And my sons spoke Italian to one another.

Then they started school. And, of course, English became, you know, more dominant, entirely predictable. And but they're Italian was very good, and it's still very good. They still speak Italian to me. Amazing. I can't imagine what dinner is like around the table at yours. I just imagine lots of different languages being spoken in one sentence. Very interesting. My next question is from Louise. We kind of have we kind of have covered this, but she wanted to know what the benefits were. We kind of spoke about the benefits of knowing what? More than one language.

What about a bit more on the challenges of knowing more than one? Well, the challenges. I mean, for example. I mean, let's go back to school. Children who start school, um, you know, and they may be dominant in another language. So my Children, for example, their English was a little bit behind when they started school. Precisely because we've reinforced Italian, right? So was I worried the first time with my first son? Um, you know, Well, as a mother was a little it was a little bit worried. There's a scientist I wasn't.

And then I realised that my son caught up with English very, very fast indeed. So when it happened the second time, I decided not to worry. Um, but this is one of the things I was saying. You know, the relative balance between the two languages, never the same so perfect bilinguals from that point of view don't exist. And so, you know, depending on a stage of life situations and so on the relative balance between the two languages, uh, may change and does and does change. So that's one challenge you know, that parents may may encounter, uh, for adults, you know, maintaining a language.

Uh, maybe, uh, sometimes a challenge. Right? Because if you don't hear it anymore, you know, people think, Oh, I forgot. I can't speak that language anymore. Um, the question is, have they really forgotten it? The question is, has their brain forgot the language, And it has been found that even if people who, uh, they had no conscious awareness of remembering a language that they learned as Children And then they stopped speaking, re exposure to that language played a huge trick because re exposure reactivated the language in their brain.

So the language was still there. It just needed to be reactivated and and relearning was much faster than learning for scratch. Wow. Okay, maybe I do need to get learning on my French. Absolutely. The next question I was going to ask you a slightly controversial. Maybe, Simon said, is the ability to learn a second language as an adult, a function of intelligence or the two things unconnected? I don't think it's a function of intelligence. And in fact, you know, I would like to clarify that those effects that I mentioned have nothing to do with intelligence again.

You know, they're an extra gear that allows us to perform better in a variety of everyday tasks or everyday situations, but nothing. Nothing to do with intelligence. Uh, of course. You know what interacts with our abilities to learn? Other languages are other things, you know, So life circa stances, for example. Um uh, you know, uh, well, economic situations, Uh, level of literacy, for example. Uh, so all these factors, I mean, they don't necessarily make us better learning a language, but they can influence, you know, whether whether we can learning how far we can go in learning a language again.

You know, there are predispositions as well as the facts, but the predispositions are not in terms of being more intelligent or less intelligent. Um, some people, I mean, we accept that some people are have predispositions to be musical, right? Uh, so some people are better at learning music or learning to play an instrument than other people. It doesn't mean they are more intelligence. It means that they have this particular predispositions. So it is possible that we have, You know, we differ in terms of some predispositions, but every learning experience is a combination of predispositions and and actually X experience situations in which we learned.

So we can definitely have an effect that we can influence. You know the conditions in which languages are learned so that most people can get the most out of the experience of learning language so we can create environments in which, uh, learning languages is easier for the majority of people. Okay, you spoke a bit about that predisposition for kind of music. Or maybe maths. And Louise, who asked a question earlier, She said, Do they have anything in common? So is there a relationship between having language and maths or having language and music? Is there any kind of known connection between those? Um, not very much is known about this.

I mean, there may be predispositions, but again, you know what the exact relationship is, you know. So if you are good at maths, does it mean that you're also good at languages? Not necessarily. So So we definitely need more research on, you know, these potential connections But again, you know, I would like to stress that predispositions is not just the beginning of the story, but in fact, you know, creating the right conditions and the right circumstances where people can can learn languages effectively.

That is something that we can actually actively do, uh, to encourage predispositions if they are there, but also to allow, you know, many people who may not be predisposed in the same way to learn languages in an effective way and to benefit from the effects of bilingualism. Okay, great. We have another question from Sophie, who said she was interested and you spoke briefly about this earlier. But I know you're willing to expand a bit about the experience of people who have spoken and assigned language.

What kind of their experience? Yes, this is known as by model bilingualism. So bilingualism in two modalities spoken and signed, and, uh, and there are many by model bilinguals. Um, there are also, interestingly uni model signers. So there are, you know, deaf people who learn more than one sign language. And so those people are uni model because they only use as designed modality, uh, in their unit model like you know, people speaking more than one language, they only use the spoken modality. So the interesting thing about by model bilinguals is that they combine both both modalities.

So some of the effects, the potential beneficial effects that I mentioned before have been found in by model bilinguals. Uh, there are interestingly supplementary effects that have been found, uh, that have to do with, uh, special sensitivity in visual and spatial sensitivity and orientation. Not surprisingly, given that you know the sign modalities obviously has a visual element. Um, and a special element. So, uh so, yes, there are. There are effects of bilingualism by model bilingualism that are specific to buy model bilingualism.

But there are also more general effects that are found both in uni model and in by model bilingualism. Fascinating. Okay. Thank you. A few more questions. Hopefully we've got time for Martina said I keep forgetting words and phrases in my native language after learning a second one. What do you think the reason could be? Okay. Thank you for the question. Because I realised that I didn't have enough time to speak about this. Uh, what we study here in Edinburgh in particular But not only are the effects of learning another language on the native language, and this is very interesting indeed because, uh, these effects are there, but it doesn't mean that you lose your language or you forget your language.

It means that, uh, there are very specific adaptations or changes that happen in the native language as a result of accommodating another language. And we think that these modifications, you know, as I said, are very selective there. Now, you know, across the board, um, they imply effects on vocabulary, but also some effects on grammar. Bilingual people become more explicit in their native language, you know, in a variety of ways that I can't describe in detail now. But basically these changes might be functional to learning another language.

Well, in other words, you know, some changes in the native language may be necessary in order to really become actively bilingual in more than one language. So that's another reason why you know, the monolingual, you know, the perfect bilingual doesn't exist, but the perfect monolingual doesn't exist either. And it has been found, by the way, also, that passive exposure to multi lingual communities has an effect on the brain. So studies have been found on people who define themselves as monolingual.

And they live in Multilingual societies where they here are the languages that they don't know. They don't understand. And it has been found that even this passive exposure might actually predispose the brain to learning other languages. We don't know enough about this. We need more research, but it's very interesting indeed. But that means that neither the perfect bilingual nor the perfect monolingual exist. So we are all bilingual to some extent along a continuum. As I said before, that is so interesting, isn't it? Right, Antonello, I need to let you know that questions have been flooding in, by the way, we have so many.

So I'm sorry to everyone that these questions we don't get to I think we're gonna make this. The final one is from Isabel, who said you mentioned that bilingual adults can better focus and switch from one task to another. So do you think that language learning could be used as a way to treat adult attention disorders like a D h d. Um, well, that's 11 possibility. Again, I wouldn't I wouldn't want to uh, there are people who try to sell this, uh, inactive ways, as you know, potential advantage. And therefore, you know, I'll tell you this package, you know, for learning a language fast, and so you know, your attention improves and so on.

So as I said before, you know these these benefits are not found across the board. It depends on the bilingual experience and so on. Um but, uh, but yeah, I mean, the interaction between becoming bilingual in certain, some kinds of disorders. I haven't mentioned this in my in my talk, but there is a lot of research on that and, you know, bilingualism can, you know, at least compensate for certain kinds of, um, you know, conditions. We study, for example, autistic Children, you know, and whether bilingualism can partly compensate for the classic manifestation of autism, which is not being able to see the other person's perspective.

And I mentioned before, One of the effects of bilingualism is precisely to be able to see another person's perspective. So in autistic Children, the hypothesis is that bilingualism can partly help and partly compensate for the classic typical manifestation of the manifestations of the condition. So in other conditions, you know that involve attention or lack of attention. It's possible that bilingualism might partly help, but we shouldn't regard it as you know, the winning recipe or the magic recipe to solve our problems.

Thank you for that, Antonella. The questions have been brilliant today, so if the answers as well, But unfortunately that's what we've got time for. So thank you so much for joining us. It has been a real pleasure to have you in The Garden. Thank you so much. And please, if you have other questions, don't hesitate to send them to me by email if you want. Thank you. And thank you to all of our members for joining this. Talk plenty of take homes there and certainly some food for thought. We hope to see you at your next Garden gathering.

Until then, stay curious.

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