Languages open doors to new worlds. By learning a foreign language, people can interact and communicate more openly, dive deeper into the culture, and learn more about each other and their backgrounds. Speaking and communicating in multiple languages breaks the wall between people. They share a common ground, and this enables establishing a closer relationship with one another. At SIETAR Austria we value and consider multilingualism as an asset. Prejudices and misconceptions about languages are still very evident in many regions. Hence, we strongly desire to promote and foster multilingualism globally for every individual as well as for society.
To achieve that objective, we conducted 12 interviews with professionals in the field of multilingualism. Prof. Antonella Sorace, one of the most well-known professionals in bilingualism and Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, shared her expertise and thoughts on the importance of languages in today’s society, intending to promote and spread awareness of multilingualism. She leads a Research and Information Centre which works on important aspects and factors about languages and multilingualism, which will be uncovered in this blog.
The Beginning of “Bilingualism Matters”
People’s lack of knowledge and experience in multilingualism, bilingualism, and language learning, as well as misconceptions and prejudices towards languages, motivated Prof. Sorace to create the centre “Bilingualism Matters” in Edinburgh in 2008 which became a Research and Information centre in 2014. The vision of “Bilingualism Matters” is to encourage people to make their decisions about the topic of bilingualism and language learning based on the credible evidence that the centre has provided. It focuses on spreading awareness about multilingualism and delivering that message to people for them to make informed decisions about their children, students, patients, policies and more, concerning languages and language learning. Soon the centre started receiving more attention and interest from other sectors of society such as policymakers, businesses, and health professionals. Now the centre consists of an international network of 28 branches on three different continents and continues to grow steadily. Since 2020, the Bilingualism Matters International Network is inviting individual researchers to join their community. In addition, the community is further establishing a new generation of researchers for public engagement.
At SIETAR Austria we are aware of the ongoing discussion about the term “mother tongue”. Prof. Sorace generally defines the term mother tongue as one’s native language. But it is not just limited to one mother tongue. It can be either one or more languages that people grew up with, and/or another language that people acquired during their lifespan. The concept of native language or mother tongue still has a meaning, but it changes over the years as people learn other languages. Consequently, when two different languages get in contact, they affect each other in very specific ways, which is normal. But what is bilingualism? And what makes a person bilingual? Being bilingual means speaking more than one language. However, there is not enough research yet to back up the question of whether there is a difference between speaking two languages, speaking three languages or four languages. But what matters, as Prof. Sorace clarifies, is the difference between knowing one language and knowing more than one. This affects the way we think and behave outside the language domain and enables us to understand different concepts from different perspectives and hence opening a broader scope for the speaker.
The Colourfulness of Bilingualism
Being bilingual is not a black and a white matter. What does that mean? It means that you can be bilingual and multilingual in many different ways. For example, you can be a fluent speaker without having the full ability to both read and write at an advanced level. Multilingualism goes from limited school-based knowledge of a language to fluent use and command, according to Prof. Sorace. Speaking multiple languages is not monotone. Being monotone is not a bad aspect, nevertheless, colours help to see things in their most beautiful appearance.
The Relationship Between Language Learning and Age
Can adults learn to speak a foreign language without an accent? The short answer is yes. But learning a foreign language very well does not imply acquiring a “perfect” accent. There are many different accents, some more prestigious than others. It is a matter of fact that adults generally have less time and availability due to being occupied with work and other responsibilities which hinder them from learning a new language compared to children. It is not a question of being able to achieve a “perfect” competence to possess high-level language skills, but more of a question of opportunities and time. It is possible to achieve a high level of competence in more than one language even if you start later in life. According to Prof. Sorace, research has also shown that the brain of people in their 70s and 80s respond well to the challenges of learning another language. They may not have the same learning conditions as a person in their 20s, but it is never too late to explore something new.
Languages Can Prevent Diseases
Did you know that research has shown being multilingual can delay the symptoms of dementia? The onset of the symptoms is delayed to approximately four to five years. There is limited research concerning this topic. However, studies demonstrated that multilingual can still get Alzheimer’s, but the symptoms of the disease become visible four to five years later compared to patients who have used only one language in their lifespan. This invaluable discovery means that people can live four to five years of more independent life.
Fears and Misconceptions of Acquiring New Languages
Parents and teachers often believe that children might not be able to learn a particular language due to being exposed to another language. This creates fears among teachers as they think that the acquisition of the new language, for instance, the school language, might be delayed as a result of it. Moreover, parents are concerned that due to learning a new language, their children might forget their mother tongue. However, Prof. Sorace strictly disagrees with these misconceptions and fears of acquiring a new language. According to her, such situations create an unfavourable atmosphere and tension for language learning and the children’s well-being. The attitude and willingness to learn and speak a language will be negatively affected. Therefore, to allow children to speak their mother tongue while learning a new one, it is recommended to create a balance between both languages and give children the freedom to use different languages. They will learn the languages and words over time if they are given the independence to do so. Children learn languages through communicating with them. Thus, we should create situations in which children want to use that language that facilitates the acquisition of that particular language without creating barriers for them. Children need to be surrounded by positive attitudes.
To sum it up, speaking multiple languages and acquiring a new language can create many opportunities in life and it opens new doors to explore other dimensions. It offers the possibility to comprehend and view aspects of life from different perspectives, hence it broadens your scope of understanding diverse people, cultures, and expertise. Multilingualism and the ability to speak more than one language can improve your general knowledge and wisdom, and even strengthen your health. The University of the People in California released research about the importance of languages. One of the main aspects they addressed was the significance of languages to society and culture, the development of every individuum, for communication as well as for businesses. It reinforces the growing significance of languages in our society. Nelson Mandela once said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Final words: SIETAR Austria and The Multilingual Garden would like to express their appreciation and gratitude to Prof. Antonella Sorace for participating in this journey of spreading awareness of the importance of languages, and for providing valuable insights and expertise.
You can find further information about Prof. Antonella Sorace at: https://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/antonella-sorace.
Furthermore, we are grateful to Dr Karin Martin for leading The Multilingual Garden and continually acknowledging the value of multilingualism for our societies.
References and Sources:
Information about Bilingualism Matters: https://www.bilingualism-matters.org/who-we-are
Information about Prof. Antonella Sorace: https://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/antonella-sorace
Information about SIETAR Austria:
Information about The Multilingual Garden: https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-multilingual-garden/?trk=ppro_cprof&originalSubdomain=at
The University of The People – The Education Revolution: https://www.uopeople.edu/