Bilingualism brings host of mental benefits, claims academic

12th March 2010 at 00:00

Children who speak two or more languages have a number of advantages, including being better at concentrating and filtering out distracting information. It may even make them more mentally agile in their old age.

Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University, told a seminar for teachers this week that bilingual children were better at understanding the points of view of others - an ability which came from having to choose the right language for the right person.

The Italian-born academic added: "Bilingual speakers must develop a powerful mechanism for keeping the two languages separate, so that fluency in one language can be achieved without intrusions from the unwanted language.

"Therefore, the bilingual child's constant experience of having two languages available and inhibiting one when the other is activated enhances their ability to multi-task in other domains," she explained.

Furthermore, speaking two languages means a child will be better at picking up other languages, while it also creates a higher awareness of language and a greater ability to think and talk about it.

"If people know more than one language, they are better able to deal with complexity," Professor Sorace said. "That is a clear advantage in any area of society and it would bring many advantages to the economy."

A further advantage of bilingualism, yet to be confirmed by research, is that it provides a defence against the decline in mental processing which comes with ageing.

Yet, she continued, there were still people who believed that bilingualism in young children could be both negative and dangerous because they believed it caused confusion.

Part of Professor Sorace's mission, through a new advice service for bilingual families, Bilingualism Matters, was to scotch some of these myths and raise awareness of the benefits of speaking more than one language.

Professor Sorace said she recently talked to pupils at Oban High, highlighting the benefits of speaking both English and Gaelic. As a result, a number of pupils had told her they were now more likely to opt to learn a further modern language.

The declining uptake of modern languages at school and university was a "serious problem," Professor Sorace told the seminar, which was held at St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh.

elizabeth.buie@tes.co.uk.

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