Antonella Sorace

24th May 2013 at 01:00
The founder of Bilingualism Matters and professor of developmental linguistics talks about the common misconceptions around language learning and why children should be taught another language as early as possible Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by James Glossop

Which languages do you speak?

I speak Italian - that is my native language - English, French, and I understand German. It means I also understand a bunch of languages for free, like Spanish, a bit of Portuguese and Sardinian.

Is there a difference between language competence or being fluent and bilingualism?

Traditionally, people understand bilingualism to mean perfect and balanced fluency in both languages. I think that is a mistake. There is no such thing as the perfect bilingual. Anyone who knows more than one language and uses more than one language on a regular basis is bilingual to me.

What is the most common misconception about language learning?

That it is difficult. Adults project their own difficulties on to children. Learning languages for children is not difficult.

Why should children learn a second language?

Having more than one language in the brain has many advantages. It makes the brain more flexible. Bilingual children are better able to pay attention to what matters and ignore what doesn't and are better able to switch between tasks. Another advantage is that bilingual children understand earlier that other people can have different points of view.

Are there any disadvantages to introducing children to languages at an early age?

The fear of confusion is not justified. Some children, especially if they learn two languages together, might start to speak a little bit later, but they generally understand both languages. From the point of view of the brain, I wouldn't say there are any disadvantages.

What is the best age to start?

If there is an opportunity to start them as early as possible - for example, if a family has more than one language to start with, they shouldn't have any hesitation. I would say to start a language even in pre-school years, but start in the right way, not through grammatical rules. That is not how children learn. They learn through playing or when they hear the language in situations where they feel motivated to use it.

The government has allocated #163;4 million for languages in schools. What does that actually buy you?

It is not enough, but another misconception is that we should have everything absolutely perfectly ready before we start doing anything. That's self-defeatist because you can't expect to have everything ready, given the size of the challenge that is in front of us. Starting small is probably a good idea.

So how could you start?

You could start from certain schools rather than all schools, or investing in the languages we already have. Obviously, we need a lot more teachers in those languages. If we want to invest in new languages, we need to invest in new teachers. But we shouldn't conclude from that that there is nothing we can usefully do.

What is your message to critics?

It doesn't help to have negative attitudes. It is very urgent for this country that there are better language skills. The best way of providing these is by starting young. It gives children a lot of advantages, but it has to go together with an understanding that children don't learn in the same way as adults.

One criticism is that the evidence to justify learning a second language in school as early as P1 - as opposed to being raised bilingual at home - is unclear, therefore we should not yet commit to this. Do you agree?

No. The recent Early Language Learning in Europe (Ellie) study shows children can learn languages in a classroom situation. What it says is that in the best cases, children have access to a series of resources outside the classroom. This is possible now because we have the technology to do it. The argument that children don't get enough input in the classroom, and therefore there is no point starting a language, is misconceived. It is not easy - it is a challenge and you need many teachers with the right level of fluency and who are trained in age-appropriate teaching methodology.

Should Gaelic and Scots be part of the national 1+2 policy?

Yes, of course. If there is a minority language there and parents only have to speak this language to their children, they don't have to teach or do anything, why not take advantage of this opportunity?

What other challenges are there in the implementation of the policy?

It is important to get schools and families on board. As the Ellie report shows, the countries where schools do best are those where language learning is really at the centre of the curriculum. That conveys to children the idea that these are important subjects. And if parents are sceptical, that can compromise the success of the policy because parents can encourage and motivate their children regardless of whether they speak languages themselves.

What is crucial to the success of 1+2?

Realistic expectations and a political will to invest in teachers, out-of-school resources, teacher training, good school-family partnerships and a huge campaign about the importance of languages.


Born: Padua, Italy

Education: Primary and secondary education at various schools in Italy; University of Rome; University of Southern California; University of Edinburgh

Career: Professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh; founder and director of the information service Bilingualism Matters.

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