Monolinguals vs. multilinguals: who wins?

Publication Date

Does comparing monolinguals and bilinguals really matter? Professor Antonella Sorace explores this and more in this thought-provoking talk.

Scotland’s younger generation is becoming increasingly linguistically diverse, with Scottish Schools Census data from 2018 indicating that 6.5% of school pupils in Scotland learned English as an additional language. Yet, despite living in an increasingly globalised and ever-changing world, our societies still harbour many misconceptions about what it means to be bi/multilingual. From prejudices about the impact on childhood development of learning multiple languages to considering language learning as a magic bullet for national development, perceptions of bi/multilingualism are largely oversimplified and need to be challenged, and language diversity should be championed! In this talk, Professor Antonella Sorace will show why comparing monolinguals and bilinguals doesn’t make much sense and why we should all regard ourselves as bilingual in one way or another.

Curious 2023

RSE Curious logo 2023

This event is part of Curious 2023.

Get under the surface with Scotland’s leading experts! The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s summer event series, Curious, is back from 04-17 September.

Delve deep during thought-provoking discussions, explore cutting-edge research and ignite your curiosity through a range of engaging talks, workshops, tours, and exhibitions. Join in this celebration of extraordinary people discussing big ideas!

To get involved or see more Curious events visit



Hello everyone and welcome to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. My name is Dr. Gary Kerr and I’m a member of the Young Academy of Scotland which is housed here inside the RSE and welcome to the RSE’s Curious programme. Just before we get started a quick housekeeping notice. Please note that there is no fire drill expected this evening. So if the fire alarm does go off then please follow the lovely Curious stuff and the purple T shirts at the back of the room and they will guide us off safely out of the building to the fiery assembly point which is in George Street, just outside the Dome. As I mentioned this event is part of Curious the Royal Society of Edinburgh is summer events programme, which is taking place between the fourth and the 17th of September. It features a series of events from talks and tours to workshops and exhibitions. This year’s theme is under the surface, and this encourages us to delve deeper, to question further and to look again, and tonight we are going to do exactly that. So you are in for an absolute treat this evening with a fascinating talk by the wonderful Professor Antonella Sorace. Professor Sorace is a professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. She is internationally known for her research on bilingualism, across the lifespan on language typology and on gradients in natural language, where she brings together a range of methods from linguistics, experimental psychology, and cognitive science. Antonella is committed to public engagement, and is the founding director of the Centre for Bilingualism Matters, which currently has 34 branches across four continents. So without further ado, please join me in putting your hands together to give a very warm welcome to Professor Antonella Sorace.


Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here. I hope you can hear me. Yes. Good. Yeah, I’m absolutely delighted to be here with you tonight. And, and tell you a little bit about not only about my own research, but you know about the research that is done in this field. And in particularly, the comparison between multilinguals and monolinguals. That, as we’ll see, underlies much of current research, and it shouldn’t. So I hope that you know, at the end, you will agree with me that this is not the right thing to do. Let me tell you, Yes, I’m I do research on multilingualism across the lifespan. I’m  myself probably quadrilingual. My native language is Italian. I speak English. I speak French. I know Sardinian. We’ll come back to this because my mother was from Sardinia. And in Sardinia, which is a beautiful island, by the way, you should really plan to go there. They speak Sardinian, which is another romance language. And I’m going to talk about minority languages like Sardinian. So regional minority languages, indigenous minority languages that are only found, you know, in particular places and which are disappearing very, very fast, they’re disappearing, because they are not spoken anymore. And again, my personal history is consistent with that because my mother never spoke Sardinian to me, because she thought it was not useful. Not a useful language. I had to learn standard Italian, of course, because I lived in Italy and English because English is useful, but not Sardinian. So we’re going to look at at this kind of a ideology underlying minority minority languages. So this is a rhetorical question, obviously, you know, monolinguals versus multilinguals. Who wins? Guess who? This is not going to be a surprise but it’s the comparison that I’m going to actually criticise. So some definitions. First of all, bilingual or plurilingual. There is a discussion at the moment about the correctness of using the term multi lingual instead of plurilingual, because I thought they were interchangeable, but in fact, now, it seems that people are using the term plurilingual to define individuals. So people who speak more than one language, but the term multilingual defines areas, regions, territories where multiple languages are spoken. Anyway, I’m not going to stick to this to this distinction very, very religiously, but anyway, by bilingual or plurilingual, whatever you want to call them. I mean, I want to refer to someone who knows more more than one language, even if not to the same level, and we’ll come back to this point, bilingual the perfect bilingual doesn’t exist. And so a bilingual is not two monolinguals in one in a trilingual is not three monolinguals in one, and so on and so forth. So, and they can’t be expected to behave like two or three monolingual, the sum of several monolinguals. However, as I said at the beginning, monolinguals have been the point of reference for research in on bilingualism, but also for public policy policies about bilingualism, I’ll come back to this because I work both on research, but also on public engagement on the public understanding of multilingualism and bilingualism, and so I’m aware of, of how widespread these concepts are. So the monolingual is the point of reference, for example, in research, the native monolingual speaker is the point of reference. And it has been the point of reference for a  time. So typically, in research, we compare a group of monolingual native speakers with a group of bilinguals. So and the assumption is that we are comparing homogeneous groups, so a group of you know, monolinguals, or the same more or less, in a group of bilinguals, you know, all come comparable. And when we find a difference between the two groups, that’s evidence that we can use to defend to support whatever claim we’re making. So that comparison between monolinguals and bilinguals has been absolutely fundamental for research. And in fact, this goes back quite a while, in fact, most linguistic research in the, in the Western world, which is where most of the research gets funded, most of the research gets funded, you know, particularly in monolingual countries or countries that, you know, for political, economic reasons have, you know, their official language. And that language is well in the past was often imposed on on people so much research is done in the so called Anglosphere, where English is the language. So the United States, the United Kingdom. And so, you know, the native monolingual norm is an absolutely basic concept, particularly in these in these countries, monolingual Western societies, or at least, you know, it’s a little bit of a fiction that these countries are monolingual because, as we know, there are many languages that other languages, so both regional minority languages, but also languages introduced by migration. So we live more and more in multilingual communities, but these countries are considered as English speaking countries, you know, French speaking countries, German speaking countries, and so on. So the concept of the monolingual norm, and when it comes to studying second language learning, for example, if you learn a second language as a as an adult, then the point of reference is, again, the monolingual norm, you have to try and speak like a native speaker of that language. And I’m as guilty as anybody else. I’ve done a lot of research on second language learning, second language acquisition, and that’s a scale that I’ve often used, I don’t use it anymore. So you know, we change in our life, and that’s good that you know, we are sensitive to changes. So the highest level on that, on that scale, is called near native speaker. And the term near native already suggests being almost there, being you know, almost, you know, like a native speaker, but not quite. So you’re near native, but not exactly like a native and that’s the highest level that we, until very recently, many other researchers assume is the final point. And we should really, as I said, give up that in research on the so called bilingual advantage or the effects of bilingualism on other aspects of behaviour, cognition, I’m going to summarise this shortly. But again, you know, the eye advantages or disadvantages of bilingualism are are the result of a comparison with monolinguals. So, you know, if we find an advantage of bilingualism, it means that you know, bilinguals are better than monolinguals. If we find a disadvantage, it means that bilinguals are worse than monolinguals. One way or another. The monolingual is the point of references. So and that’s that’s a joke. But you know, it’s basically the philosophy. So again, you know, bilinguals, bilinguals, trilingual, multilinguals, plurilinguals, whatever, are implicitly or explicitly seen as the sum of monolingual natives. So we need to give up this perspective, we need to abandon this perspective, both in research and in societies. So what about research on on plurilingualism multilingualism. I just, I’m going to give you a very brief summary of the findings, because I’m going to revisit them in the light of what I’ve been saying. So, there are still many old fashioned myths about bilingualism, particularly in our societies, let’s remember that multilingualism is far more common than monolingualism, across the globe, so there are more multilinguals across the globe, then monolinguals. So people who are exposed who speak, you know, different languages, different varieties. So, you know, it would be very weird to find people who speak only one language in many countries in the world, but again, in our type of societies and type of countries. That’s the that’s the point of reference. And there are still, you know, many myths, old fashioned myths about bilingualism that we have to separate from the facts, the facts, or the results that are coming out of research, which are not truths, you know, they shouldn’t be treated as you know, unchangeable, you know, piece of pieces of truth, because research moves on all the time, fortunately. And so, you know, we always try to go beyond what we what we know. But increasingly, we also have to distinguish between science and science fiction. So again, my public engagement work, you know, often puts me in touch with misunderstandings or mis-readings of current research that goes in the opposite direction, often from the old, the old misconceptions, and I’ll explain what I mean, very soon. So we are at any an interesting time, where we still have the old misconceptions, but we have some new misconceptions that arise out of the misreading of research. So what are the the distinctions between meats and fats? So very, very quickly for children, and I’m going to, I’m going to talk mostly about children today, not about adults and adults, learning other languages. If you have any questions about adults, you know, I’ll be happy to answer. But the rest of my talk is going to be concerned mostly with child bilingualism. So the idea that a bilingual child is confused, they don’t learn any language properly. So it’s better to wait until you know one language is fully mastered before you introduce another language. Right? Many people still ask that question, a bilingual child, particularly if they come from a different country, they’re guaranteed and expected to have problems at school, because they don’t know enough English, for example, if they come here, and so you know, compared to people, children who are born in this country, they’re going to have a problem guaranteed. And so they’re often poutine special groups, you know, where have other migrant children who are equally expected to have problems. And then the distinction between useful and not useful languages that I’ve already mentioned, with respect to my personal personal history. So, you know, some languages are regarded as economically useful and prestigious, and, and so on. Other languages are not so useful. And so they are really under threat because people are not speaking them anymore. And as we’ll see, they’re not speaking them to their children. And so, you know, these languages are dying at the very, very fast rate. So, what does research show very, very briefly, I’m not you know, you can come back to these points with questions if you want. Bilingual children tend to have a better understanding of language. Enjoy and are also they find it easier to learn other languages, if they start from more than one, they have a better understanding of the structure of the majority language as well, if they learn enough of the majority language, if they come from a different country, and they have to learn the language of the environment and they do learn it, if they hear of if they hear it often enough, and they have a potential advantage in understanding how it works.  And there are research has shown some advantages in the acquisition of literacy, particularly learning to read, certain aspects of the acquisition of literacy are facilitated by the fact of having more than one language more than one language in the brain. And there are many effects that have been found outside language outside the language domain. So for example, one of them is a better awareness in bilingual or plurilingual children of the fact that it is possible to have a different perspective from your own. So this is a you know, sometimes called a theory of mind or perspective taking in that means an awareness that yeah, it is possible to have a different point of view, that’s very useful, right? You know, that is at the basis of empathy, although it’s not necessarily coinciding with empathy, but it’s definitely one of the basis for empathy. And that comes from the fact that a bilingual child understands very quickly that not everybody is bilingual. And so they have to choose the right language depending on who they’re talking to. And that means stepping out of your own linguistic shoes, so to speak, and appreciate another person’s linguistic perspective. And this is expanded generalised outside the language domain, leading to a better ability to understand other points of view, there is plenty of research. And I’ll come back to this very controversial at the moment on how we pay attention. And bilingualism and plurilingualism has been found by several studies to enhance the our ability to focus attention, whatever we’re doing, so we need to pay attention to what we’re doing otherwise, we don’t do it well. And bilinguals have been found to be better at focusing attention on what matters for the task that one is doing, and ignoring or being less distracted by factors that don’t matter. For the task we’re doing. So ability to handle conflicting information, but also mental flexibility in switching from one task to the other. So we’re all multitaskers in our everyday life. So this is, you know, this ability is something that is useful in our everyday life. And you may wonder what how does bilingualism have anything to do with this. And it’s due to the fact that in our brain, if we speak more than one language, you can’t switch off your language and put it in the drawer in the morning because we don’t need it today. All languages are active all the time. And so you know, when we speak one, we have to exclude the other or others depending on how many we we have. So I’m speaking English to you. But my Italian and the other languages I know, are very active in my brain and I’m doing my best to keep them out of the picture. And so this constant mental gymnastics that goes together with being having more than one language, again, has its roots in languages but it can be expanded outside, outside the language domain leading to a better control of focused attention, ignoring irrelevant information and so on that kind of mental flexibility. And it has been found, you know, in studies on education, the relationship between bilingualism and schooling, that some of these effects might actually facilitate STEM subjects. So they might facilitate several aspects of creativity, understanding differences, understanding varieties, which are also reflected in certain types of logical thinking certain types of mathematical thinking. So the usual contraposition that we often found between in school curricula between languages and STEM subjects is really not founded I mean, you know, are very often children find themselves to choose, you know, between STEM subjects on the one hand, or languages on the other. And that shouldn’t happen, because, you know, almost inevitably, many children – and families – tend to choose STEM subjects because they are regarded as more important. But in fact, if it’s true that languages are actually can help, you know, also STEM subjects, then we should be more careful in offering curricula that offer the possibility of choosing both. So these are facts, as I said, it’s the fact of having more than one language that matters, regardless of which languages. So it doesn’t matter whether these languages are prestigious, economically important, or spoken by billions of people. It’s the fact of having more than one language that matters. And so all languages, varieties, dialect, regardless of how you want to call them, all matter, from this point of view, including sign languages, which are languages and all in all respects, except for the fact that they use a different modality. So in fact, there is research on bimodal bilingualism, for example, speaking a language but also knowing a sign language, and, and so on. But and this is why, you know, some of these research is controversial, because the effects are not automatic. So it’s not you know, that you if you have more than one language in the brain, yes, of course, you’re going to have all these beneficial effects, these benefits are not always found, and in all research on fields of research, as we you know, research moves on then more studies are done and so on. Then contradictory results, results start appearing or lack of results, you know, in some studies and the presence of results in other studies, and that is absolutely normal in all fields of research. It’s happening in the field of bilingualism research on bilingualism. And what we are understanding more and more and better and better is that we have to take the variation in the experience in the bilingual experience into account. So instead of comparing a group of bilinguals, as I said, at the beginning, with a group of monolinguals, which has been the basis for many the studies of the past, we should really stop doing that comparison. And instead of comparing, you know, bilinguals, with monolinguals, we should actually compare people according to their degree of bilingualism and multilingualism. So on a continuum that ranges from less bilingual to more bilingual defined by many, many different factors, I’m going to mention some, but I think, you know, it’s fair to say that, you know, in research, we are still trying to understand the effect of these factors and how these factors interact in bilingual individuals. So we should avoid academic fights. And academic fights happen, not only in the field of bilingualism, they happen in other fields as well. So you know, people competing No, no, you know, yes, these effects exist, no, these effects don’t exist. Wait a minute, you know, let’s try to understand why the effects are found, you know, in some cases, but they’re not necessarily found in other cases. So we know, we need to understand the modulating factors. So, for children, for example, the degree of parental attrition, I’ll come back to this at the end of my talk. Languages change. If you speak another language, your native language changes, if you move to another country, and you are exposed to a second language more than your first or native language, your native language changes. So this is called that attrition, which is a bad word in many ways, because it suggests erosion loss and so on. But in fact, it’s a normal phenomenon. So it’s the degree of parental attrition for bilingual children, if the one of the parents or both parents speak a minority language, a language introduced by migration or any indigenous minority language, you know, what is the degree of change or attrition. So for example, I’m the proud mother of two bilingual sons, not children anymore, but they grew up with Italian and English, but the Italian they heard from me is not the same as the Italian I heard I heard from my parents while I was growing up, I was born and raised in Italy, because you know, they were born here. And so you know, my Italian had already undergo had been undergoing changes. So this is one of the factors that needs to be understood. Language distance doesn’t matter if you speak two very different languages, as opposed to two quite similar languages, say Italian and Spanish versus English and Chinese, and Mandarin, right? Very, very different. On the one hand, more much more similar on the other. Does it matter? From the point of view of the effects that I mentioned before. We don’t have a clear answer about that. Exposure to variation. So many bilingual children, particularly in the minority language, they only hear it from mommy or from daddy, but they don’t hear it from other people. Now, think of a child growing up, you know, in a natural community, they hear the language spoken by everybody. So parents, adults, children, young people, older people, men, women, different regional accents, different registers, the whole spectrum of variation by a bilingual child, particularly in the minority language, they may not be exposed to that variation. And that variation is very important to develop the language completely. So we always encourage, you know, parents to, to make sure that their child hears the language, the minority language, not only from them, but from other people get together with other speakers within the community, make sure that your child hears people speaking in naturally different ways. Literacy is a very important factor. So if a child learns to read, and then perhaps to write as well, in the minority language that could certainly opens up, you know, a new world of, of exposure to the language, you know, that children can enjoy. It motivates them to, to, to use the language, degree of code switching, I’ll come back to this in a moment. So does it matter if you live in a community where everybody speaks both languages, say two languages, and everybody constantly switches from one language to the other, as opposed to a community where language a is only spoken in this environment, say at home, language B is only spoken outside the home, that is very different, because code switching switching from one language to the other is much more common in the first type of environment, then in the second, and attitudes, what people think about languages is very important. Children are incredibly sensitive to what people think about languages. And if parents, you know, rather, people say, oh, you know, this language is now very useful, you know, and so on, that doesn’t exactly motivate children to, to keep it to speak, to use it, to and to maintain it. So, this is also very important, and we’ll come back, you know, can we do something about this, and I’m optimistic enough to think that we can do something about this. So, let’s just look at some data on minority languages. So, minority languages is a broad term that applies you know, both to a regional minority languages only spoken in certain places and languages introduced by migration for example, that obviously are not spoken, you know, widely in the country where people migrate compared to the the majority language. Now, the effects you know, some of the effects that I mentioned before are not always found in minority languages, the minority languages that have been studied. So just to give you a few examples, Sardinian Italian Yes, some effects have been found Gaelic English Yes, the effects have been found Friesian Dutch, yes and no, the effects you know, have been found sometimes, but not all the time. Welsh English, no effects found Cypriot Greek and Greek Yes, the effects are found Catalan Spanish, no, the effects are not found. And Basque Spanish No, the effects are not found. Now, this is a quite a range of you know, regional minority languages with different political systems. You know, obviously, you know, not all my these languages are treated the same in the countries where they are spoken. But it’s interesting that you know, the effects are found not across the board, but only in some cases. So one of the questions that arises why why do we find these variation? And one of the things that we might want to consider is How these languages are used in context by people. So we can distinguish between Dual Language contexts where both languages are spoken by the majority of people. Now, you may say, Well, that’s not true of Welsh, you know, and so on. But, but you know, to some extent, it’s true. So, you know, and if you have a community where both languages tend to be understood and spoken by many people, the effects are not found in Welsh English, they’re not found in Basque and Spanish. They are found in Catalan and Spanish, but as opposed to single language context, where the two languages are really divided, because language is only spoken here. Language B is spoken in a different context. So at home for example, like Sardinian is only spoken at home and Italian is spoken outside the home in Sardinia. So in these are the contexts where the effects tend to be found more often than in the other type of context. So Sardinian, Italian Cypriot Greek and Greek, Gallic English infusion Dutch. So this seems to be you know, a variable that actually matters. And any, in fact, you know, there are studies, you know, psychologists that have tried to explain this. So, you know, in dual language context where everybody understands and speaks, you know, both languages or most people speak and understand both languages, there is much more switching and less need to exclude one of the languages because you can assume that everybody speaks both languages. So you don’t need to actually exclude one of the languages very strongly as opposed to single language context where yes, you do, because if you’re in Sardinia, and you speak Sardinian outside, you know, people may not understand you, because it’s a home language. And so when you’re at home, you try to push out Italian when you’re outside the home use you push out Sardinian. So, that kind of inhibition or exclusion of the other language applies more strongly. This this really shows that typological distance matters, but social practices, attitudes actually matter to define the presence or the absence of certain kinds of effects and language distance as I already mentioned, so you have more similar languages on the one hand, so Catalan Spanish, yes, the effect is found Sardinian Italian, the effect is Cypriot Greek and Greek. Yes. And the Frisian Dutch are similar languages, the effects tend to be found, but more dissimilar languages, the effect doesn’t seem to be found to the same extent. So Basque Spanish, they’re very, very different. Welsh English, they’re more similar, but also different and Gaelic English, unlike the first two groups, the effects are found. So, language nuisance is another factor that we need to take into account and what we call cognitive control adapts to the perception of language the language distance, so, if you have type or logically similar languages, you need to apply more inhibition or to keep them apart. And in in social interaction, you know, you tend to apply more more switching, but topologically different languages, because they are different, you don’t need to apply a lot of you know, exclusion to keep them apart, but you may have less switching and more need for inhibition in social interaction. So, effects that you know, are pointing potentially different directions, we need to analyse them together and see the effects that they have on on these so called advantages or the presence of these advantages. Another thing that I want to mention is the children’s perception of their languages, and this is a study we did a few years ago on bilingual children in Scotland, and we did this in collaboration with sociologists. And and we wanted to really study you know, the, the perception of heritage languages on by children, the children’s identity in these languages, and how these factors are reflected in linguistic and cognitive mastery of these languages. So we collected both mixed methods, qualitative or quantitative data, and we had both Gaelic English bilingual children so children bilingual with the local minority language in Scotland and children from migrant families. So, minority language is introduced by migration. To cut a long story short, what we found was that, and not surprisingly, children with positive attitudes in families and schools that value bilingualism and value their languages, actually, they are better at speaking the language. And also, they tend to show the cognitive effects of bilingualism more than children where the attitudes are less positive. So, you know, Gaelic speaking children from gaelic speaking families in gaelic, medium education, schools, they tend to perform better than then than other children. And this study actually put us in touch, you know, with sometimes, you know, children’s reactions that we didn’t anticipate, even in languages where you wouldn’t expect children to have negative attitudes. I remember a child from a child in a German speaking family, and this child actually didn’t like speaking German at all. But he said to us, please don’t tell my mom and dad, because they don’t, they don’t know this. So we had permission to have interviews with children without the parents without the teachers. And we came across you know, these these really strong emotional perceptions and reactions on behalf by children. So these really need to be taken into account. And we need to make children proud of their languages. This is one of the our tasks in public engagement. Through the bilingualism matters centre, that I started because these positive attitudes positive perception of the languages in their, their being bilingual in these languages is actually vital for both active bilingualism. And for minority languages, there’s another big obstacle and this is an obstacle not on behalf of children. But on behalf of grownups adults. Let’s call it purism. So, you know, many adults, particularly the ones who care about these languages, and very often people who do policy about these languages. They think, oh, you know, this language is degenerating, the language is going down the drain. It’s not spoken as well as it used to be. Right. So and, you know, so yeah, and also these misconceptions. A child who speaks Sardinian can’t speak Italian Well, right. A child who speaks Gaelic is not very good at English, right. And minority languages are contaminated. I’ve heard this word several times, they are contaminated by bilingualism. Now, we have to get over this perception because as I said, at the beginning, language change is absolutely normal in bilingualism, so all living languages change, when they are in contact with one another, they change both in the same brain in the same individuals. And then in communities where both languages are spoken. And language that doesn’t change anymore is dead. And more and more languages are dying, or they’re essentially dead. So normal changes are expected. But if a language is lively and still spoken, that languages can that language can’t be expected to be spoken, you know, in the same way as two generations ago. So change is not loss changes, not contamination is absolutely normal. It’s not deterioration of linguistic standards. And this is absolutely fundamental, from the policy point of view, to encourage the, the survival, the survival of these languages. So in first generation speakers, for example, who move forward to another, another country. You know, I’m a case in point I left Italy many years ago, obviously, I wasn’t exposed to Italian as much as before. So I wasn’t exposed to the natural variation in the Italian community, because there was no Italian community anymore around me. Also, I tended to speak to other Italians, who were also migrants who also had left Italy at different points in time. So when we speak to one another, we tend to propagate the changes that are already happening in our language. So the larger the community, the migrant community, the more these changes tend to extend to propagate. So this phenomenon is called alignment in, in psychology, because people accommodate to each other. And this is normal in in, in normal interaction, people tend to copy each other. That’s not the right way of putting in, but they really tend to accommodate one another. So there is a horizontal transmission of changes in community, in addition to the transmission from one generation to the next, as I said, you know, the Italian I spoke with my children is not the same as the Italian, I heard in Italy. And so, you know, my children don’t speak, they speak Italian very well. But, you know, there are some changes already, if they decide to speak Italian, when the time comes, when they have children, if they have children, then that generation will speak another type of Italian as well. And this is absolutely normal. This is how lively languages change over time. And in first generation speakers, these changes can be reversed. So it’s interesting that you know, if I moved back to Italy for good, or for a long period of time, some of these changes might be reversed. And we did a study on this precisely that shows this. And this is what I said, you know, so from one generation to the next, these changes can be regularised and the language changes. So, clearly, you know, English has changed is not spoken in the same way as two centuries ago, three centuries ago, because, you know, that is an absolutely normal normal thing to expect. And we are doing research in my group on the relationship between changes in your native language and level of attainment in the second language, and there seems to be a very nice relationship between the two. So, because, you know, they, there are similarities between the way you know, speakers under attrition behave. So, in my Italian for example, and the way learners of the same languages behave, so, learners of Italian who come from a different language background and who have reached a certain level. So there are convergences, and those convergences seem to suggest that the two phenomena are related. So there may be two sides of the same coin. So change is necessary to achieve productive bilingualism bilingualism that is really effective in communication. And that’s one more reason why proficient bilinguals are not the sum of two monolinguals because you know, their languages actually adapt to one another in very specific in very selective ways. So we have to embrace language change. This is we don’t have time to look at this, you can find it online. This is a young Welsh guy who actually complains about the fact that when he gets corrected, you know, well, he says, I like speaking Welsh. Yes, I do speak Welsh. But if I switch to English, you know, sometimes because you know, the word is better in English, or because I can’t find the watch word. I don’t want to be corrected. I don’t want people to look at me in with a funny face. I want to be free to do that. And he’s absolutely right. So you know, again, a productive bilingualism means also embracing language change. And that is one of the ways in which we can preserve linguistic diversity. These are really scary numbers, because there are about 7000. Nobody knows how many languages are actually spoken in the world. Because there are languages that are not documented. They haven’t been actually found and described. And all these languages, I mean, of all these languages, 25 languages are spoken by more than half of the world population 25 languages. At least they’re listed there. So that means that the vast, vast, vast majority of languages are minority languages spoken in a situation of coexistence and coexistence with one or more majority languages. So understanding bilingualism and multilingualism is absolutely essential to maintain this linguistic diversity but also doing something about about the preservation of linguistic diversity through a better understanding of multilingualism and how multilingualism works. And finally monolinguals you know, yes, I mean, are monolinguals getting extended? I mean it the concept of monolingualism and monolingual as I said, you know, it’s getting slow, slightly side track, because this comparison between bilinguals and monolinguals is getting less central to research. But there are also very interesting studies about passive exposure. So living in a multilingual community of languages that people don’t understand, but they hear around them, they passively hear these languages because they live in multilingual communities. So there was a famous study done in the States, where Californian Americans who define themselves as monolinguals, oh I don’t speak any other language, I only speak or speak English, but California is fairly multilingual. So there are many languages around, you know, these people, as opposed to Central Pennsylvania, where again, you know, these Americans defined themselves as monolinguals. But they were not surrounded by many languages, because it’s not Philadelphia, it’s central Pennsylvania, where language diversity is much reduced compared to California. All these people had to learn a new language, which was Finnish, Finnish, which is a difficult language, it’s quite challenging. And basically, you know, they were followed for a few months, you know, how these people and bilinguals also participated in the study. And what was found is that the brain so the brain was studied from a neurological point of view, but also the behaviour over time in these two groups of monolinguals. And the brain of the monolinguals in California was much more similar after a while to the brain of a bilingual than the brain of the Pennsylvanians. So that means their exposure, you know, passive exposure to languages actually might predispose the brain to to learn another language compared to you know, more or less multilingual societies. So again, passive exposure doesn’t mean active command of the language. And so you know, these are monolinguals. But are they really monolinguals? Are they really, is there really only one language in the brain? Possibly not? Otherwise, we wouldn’t explain these, these effects. And similarly, a study we did in Scotland on multilingual classrooms, where we actually compared more multilingual classrooms with less multilingual classrooms. So classrooms were more than 50% of pupils were from other language backgrounds, as opposed to only 5% of pupils were from other language backgrounds. And we followed them for a year, and everybody had to learn Spanish as the new language. There were no Spanish speakers in any of these classrooms. Spanish was a new language for everybody. And, and we gave them cognitive tests linguistic tests over time. And what we found was that a greater number of multilingual children passed the Spanish and the cognitive tests, even if many of them were still learning English actively, depending on when they had migrated to Scotland with their family. But also most interesting of all, there was a trend, a trend means results that need to be confirmed by further research. Where monolingual children in more multilingual classrooms, so surrounded by children who spoke other languages in an encouraging environment that actually stimulated children’s curiosity, natural curiosity towards each other, actually, those children performed better than those in less multilingual classrooms. So again, being surrounded by multilingualism in a positive environment can actually have some effects that we still need to understand to fully understand, but it means there again, you know, monolinguals, who are never ever exposed to any other language, they don’t hear any language at all. Where are they? I mean, maybe they’re, you know, just very old people, you know, hermits on top of a mountain. At this point, you know, if we really want to look for the real monolinguals, they are getting rarer and rarer. So, I’m coming to an end you will be pleased to hear. So we need to, if we want to encourage multilingualism/plurilingualism in societies, we really need to and we shouldn’t do that, not only because there are, you know, social cognitive linguistic effects, but also to preserve linguistic diversity. which is also cultural diversity behind every language, there is a culture and losing linguistic diversity really means you know that humanity gets poorer, because cultural diversity is lost. So we really have to encourage multilingualism from all points of view. And we think that more information can lead to better decisions. And so we are trying to build bridges, not only across in research across different fields of research, but also between research and society, because people find themselves making decisions all the time about their children, about their students, about their patients about their policies, about their daily life, their daily behaviour. And they often do it on the basis of misconceptions, either old misconceptions, as I said, the beginning, but also new misconceptions such as a bilingual child is more intelligent. And I’ve heard this several times. So if you give more than one language, your your child turns into a genius, right? Or, you know, if you are multilingual, you don’t get dementia when you’re older. And you know, when I get asked this question, I always say, I wish that was true. That would be fantastic. Unfortunately, it’s not true. That’s a new misconception that is arising out of misreading of research. So we need to construct bridges. And that’s why bilingualism matters exists. And now it’s very big. I founded it as a local service. But now, there are many, many more people involved in bilingualism matters. And we really try to communicate research to people in very, very different sectors of society. And we learn a lot from doing this, we learn to do research better. As researchers, we learn to understand bilingualism in context, much better than we would otherwise. And we have a fantastic international network now 34 branches, most of them are in Europe, as you might expect. But we also have five in the United States, one in Canada, one in Australia, and one in China and one in the Middle East. And many, many expressions of interest. And this is good because it allows us to look at bilingualism and multilingualism in very different types of societies, different languages, different language combinations, different political contexts, different political decisions. So this is really very, very informative for us. And if you want to know more about bilingualism research, this is a book that has been has just come out that I wrote with two colleagues, we wrote the original version. In Italian, it’s been translated by Cambridge University Press, and it’s just out now. And we tried to summarise some of the research in an accessible way. And at this point, I just want to say thank you very much for listening. And I’m curious to know if you have any questions. Thank you.


So we’ve got some time for some questions. If you do have a question if you just wait for one of the roving mics to make his way to you. Just while you’re maybe thinking of your question, maybe I can start off just by thanking you for an amazing and insightful presentation. I was wondering, as I was listening to your presentation on whether you would have any advice to give parents who were trying to raise a bilingual child?


Well, yes. But again, you know, it’s not the same kind of advice. I mean, you know, because as I said, the the variety of situations, you know, in types of bilingualism is quite, quite wide right. So, in research we’re trying to understand you know, these these factors, you know, the linguistic the bilingual diversity along the continuum, as I said, so, it’s not the same kind of advice that we need to give to all families because it depends on you know, the families the languages, their level of of education, you know, where they live, what their experience you know, as parents is and so on. But, you know, there are certain common common you know, similar pieces of advice that that we can give you know, one of them is Yeah, any language is good. Yep. Any language variety dialect, you know, no matter how I want to how you want to call it, all languages, varieties, dialects are good and worth maintaining and In order for your child to speak these varieties, languages and so on, they need to hear enough of, they need to be exposed to enough input in these languages, they need enough opportunities to use these languages. So, you know, yeah, even social media or you know, books, but lively people, you know, is also very important. So, getting in contact, you know, with other other speakers of the same language motivates children.


Absolutely. And we’ve got a question here in the audience.


Thank you very much, Professor, that was really, really interesting, read a lot of questions in my mind. So my first language is Scottish Gaelic, I didn’t really learn English until I went to school. And from then on the process of education, was designed to discourage speaking anything other than English, we were actually allowed to sing in Gaeic, but we weren’t allowed to speak Gaelic, which is a really curious thing when you think about it. And I think that things are much better now this was in the 50s, and 60s, so things are things are much better now. Although the use of Gaelic in the community, as you know, has declined considerably. So my question was, you can now learn languages using all sorts of internet based platforms. And one of the interesting things that’s happened in Gaelic is the is the use of Duolingo. So there are now many more people using Duolingo to learn garlic than there are people like near native garlic speakers, I just wondered what you thought about that, and how it fits into models of multilingualism that you’ve been talking about? Thank you.


Thank you very much. It’s a very good question. And a question that we hear quite often, definitely, you know, it’s a good thing to have, you know, such a thing as Duolingo, you know, that allows, you know, more exposure to the language, it’s not quite the same as interacting with real people, right. Because, you know, using Duolingo, it’s more passive, obviously, you know, but it can be one factor that helps maintaining the language or developing the language, further, possibly not the only one. So. So real, real interaction, you know, would be, would be better. For Gaelic, you know, we’re doing quite a lot of research. Also, again, on the perception of garlic in, particularly in Edinburgh, you know, children, students who go to garlic medium education. And of course, you know, most of them don’t come from Gaelic speaking families. Because Gaelic is now spoken here. So they learn Gaelic at school, there’s no doubt about it, they learn they learn it very well. But then when you ask them, you know, do you actually speak Gaelic, outside school, and so on? Most of them don’t. What matters in their young people’s lives is English. Everything that matters is in English. And so you know, that raises doubts, you know, as to whether I know that the Scottish Government had this idea of creating new speakers of Gaelic. So, you know, speakers who don’t come from a Gaelic speaking background, but who might be able to speak Gaelic to the next generation when the time comes. And, you know, given these results, we wonder whether these young people will decide to speak Gaelic when their time comes. Because its English that really matters in their lives. They have very positive attitudes towards Gaelic, obviously, and they learn it very well. But it’s not really, really part of their lives.


We’ve got a question, just stop Oh, one here, and then we’ll take one at the back as well.


And does the critical age hypothesis of like, if you learned start letting the language before the age of six before the age of 12 or 18? Or whatever? Those are those that have cognitive plasticity dips. Is that still something that people believe? Or is it something that we’re fighting? Is it still something policy is that feeds into policy?


Again, the critical period hypothesis was definitely very lively, when I was a student, for example. And, you know, in the idea that, you know, there’s a cutoff point around puberty, where, you know, if you learn a language before puberty, you can learn it, well, you reach a high level and so on. After puberty, it becomes more difficult. You need to study it, you can learn it naturally. Now, reality is much more nuanced than that, fortunately, right. Because, first of all, you know, there’s no evidence that the cutoff point is really puberty. And in fact, you know, some people still talk about a critical period, but much long longer, so critical period extending to, you know, the late teens or you know, around the age of 20. At that point, though, it becomes ambiguous because obviously, you know, it may not due to big changes, you know, neural changes, or cognitive changes that make it more difficult to learn languages, it’s changes in life. I mean, you know, a 20 year old is I mean, a child, a young child has the luxury of being fully immersed in a language, and they don’t have a job, they don’t have a family, they don’t have other things to worry about, compared to even a younger adult. And certainly, you know, am I an older adult? So it’s, it’s we is it really a cognitive change that prevents people from learning languages well, or are is more, you know, sort of life changes, that makes it more complicated? It seems that from the brain, the brain point of view, it’s still possible to learn a language very well, if you start as an adult. And if you enjoy optimal conditions.


Can we ask a question for one of the online audience as well, please? It’s from Izzy and she’s asking what are the effects of bilingualism on autistic children? Are these effects still similar in those children?


Okay, there’s there’s quite a lot of research on bilingualism in atypical conditions, right? So autism, you know, would be and one of these conditions. And autism is a wide spectrum, as we know. So there’s not just one type of autism. Most of the research on the connection between autism and bilingualism has been done on highly functioning autistic children, and then and then adults. So in many cases, the families of these children are still advised to avoid speaking more than one language because it might interfere or you know, with a condition, there’s no evidence for that. Actually, there’s no evidence that bilingualism helps. I mean, you know, so we don’t that we don’t want to exaggerate in the other direction. But there’s no real evidence that autistic children can’t learn more than one language. Absolutely. None. And, you know, some people actually claim well, maybe, you know, one of the most obvious effects of autism is the, you know, the inability to see to take the other person’s perspective, which, as I mentioned, is one of the potential advantages of bilingualism. So one of the questions is whether, you know, bilingualism multilingualism can partly compensate for that effect of autism. The research is now conclusive on this. But definitely, there is no evidence that bilingualism is bad for autistic children.


Thank you. And we’re almost out of time. But I can take one final question from the lady at the back if you’ve still got your question. Yes, yes.


Thank you so much for the talk. My question is more. So we talk about bilingual mind very often focusing on language, I imagine that traditionally, we would also measure how good someone is at a second language and third language, using more traditional methods of how were they know the grammar how know they and so this thing basically, do we talk about kind of bicultural mind. So for people who maybe wouldn’t score very well on the test, but maybe are very immersed in a culture maybe they even sound more native, we know that we have a lot of ethnic minorities in Edinburgh, and I’m just kind of curious, how do we talk about that element in in bilingual as multilingualism


we should, we definitely should, right? Because, you know, knowing a language as I said, you know, knowing language is not just knowing the grammar, right. And let’s let’s bear in mind that there is individual variation, you know, there are differences among individuals, you know, which is normal again, you know, so, not all people are, you know, good at learning languages in the same way for example, but, but definitely, you know, the cultural awareness and cultural understanding should be one of the elements that that is is part of, of being multilingual. And, and that goes well beyond, you know, the grammar and obviously, you know, in order to acquire that sensitivity one needs to be exposed to the language in context. And not just in you know, in a in a language class or one hour a week or or Duolingo, and so on. So it requires, you know, more experience of using the language, but it’s definitely one of the elements that should be taken into account. Thank you.


Wonderful. Thank you so much. And thank you, Professor. Just before we show the professor, our appreciation for an amazing presentation this evening. I just wanted to let you know that over the next two weeks, there are lots more events happening as part of curious here at the RSE. If you’d like to pick up a programme or learn more about the events, please speak to one of the amazing team with the purple T shirts before you leave the building. But Professor, that was a fantastic presentation. I feel very enlightened. And gentleman, ladies and all your amazing non binary folk and audience, please put your hands together to show our appreciation for Professor Antonella Sorace. Thank you