Bilingualism's brain benefits will boost Gaelic

10th August 2012 at 01:00
Study sheds new light on minority languages of Scotland and Sardinia

New Scottish research has made a strong case for the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and, in doing so, bolstered the case for Gaelic education in Scotland.

The study by the University of Strathclyde differs from most research into bilingualism by focusing on "minority" languages, in this case Gaelic and Sardinian, and shows Gaelic-speaking children performing particularly well in a range of tests.

The research set four tests of cognitive ability for 121 children aged around nine, 60 of them monolingual and 61 bilingual.

The bilingual children performed better but the differences were most marked in Gaelic speakers, based in Stornoway, who speak their language at school. The performance of the Italian children, who speak Sardinian only when out of school, was not as markedly superior.

"The results represent clear evidence regarding the cognitive advantages of being bilingual and reinforce previous research that has outlined the potential cognitive benefits to speaking two languages," say researchers.

The particularly impressive performance of the Gaelic speakers was attributed in part to the mental alertness required in switching between languages, which could hone skills useful in other types of thinking.

The formal teaching of Gaelic and its extensive literature are highlighted as other important differences; previous research has suggested it is crucial to be equally proficient in both languages to gain the advantages of bilingualism.

Sardinian, in contrast, is not taught widely in schools on the Italian island, has a largely oral tradition and has no standardised form.

"Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them," said research leader Fraser Lauchlan, an honorary lecturer at the University of Strathclyde's school of psychological sciences and health.

"Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem-solving and enabling children to think creatively.

"We also assessed the children's vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils."

An article by the researchers, published in the International Journal of Bilingualism, highlights the difficulty in establishing clear causal links between such results and the ability to speak two languages, but concludes: "It is clear from the current research that the speaking of . minority languages, whether it be at home or in a school setting, but preferably both, should be encouraged."

The study was carried out with researchers Marinella Parisi and Roberta Fadda, from the University of Cagliari, where Dr Lauchlan is a visiting professor.


Research in the post-war years often identified potential harm in raising children to speak two languages, but it has been much criticised by contemporary researchers.

International research has consistently indicated that pupils involved in language immersion and partial-immersion programmes perform as well as, and sometimes better than, their peers.

Evidence has pointed to benefits in areas such as cognitive control - bilingual children appear better at picking out important information and ignoring misleading cues - problem solving and creative thinking.

Very few studies in recent times have identified disadvantages to bilingual immersion. Those that do have tended to focus on practicalities such as finding suitable accommodation or qualified teachers.

Photo credit: Gail Prentice

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