THE CAMBRIDGE RESEARCH CONTEXT
Languages are vital for dealing with key issues of our time: community cohesion and identity; international development; defence, diplomacy and national security; international trade and business; and health and well-being. Most of all, they are vital because speaking languages is what makes us human. Unlocking how languages work and interact with each other will help us understand language and cognition in the brain - a scientific area of tremendous importance.
In Cambridge, our expertise across many different disciplines allows us to research multilingualism from a broad and fascinating range of perspectives. Now, as part of the Global Humanities initiative, there are new opportunities for us to explore multilingualism in parts of the world where that remarkable phenomenon is the norm.
IS MULTILINGUALISM NATURAL?
Multilingualism is the most natural state to be! Most of the speakers in the world speak at least two languages. Theoretical linguists have gone as far as saying that even monolingual speakers are in effect bilingual speakers. Multilingualism has been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Moreover, researchers are finding a swathe of health benefits from speaking more than one language, including faster stroke recovery, benefits for SLI, and delayed onset of dementia. Not to mention that multilingual speakers have a higher earning capacity!
ARE THERE ANY COGNITIVE BENEFITS TO BILINGUALISM?
Bilinguals have improved metalinguistic awareness and better performance on executive function, that is, better memory, visual-spatial skills and even creativity. Moreover, life-long bilinguals are better at inhibitory control, the ability to ignore irrelevant information during a task. Furthermore, bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and promote faster stroke recovery.
AS SPEAKERS OF ENGLISH, IS THERE ANY POINT LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE?
Just because others speak English and they can understand what you say, it doesn’t mean that you can always understand them. To put it differently, others will generally be able to understand you, but you will be at the disadvantage of not being able to understand them: that is why monolingualism has been described as 'the illiteracy of the 21st century'.
ARE BILINGUALS SPEAKERS OF NO LANGUAGE?
Speaking two or more languages does not make you a semi-speaker of a language, the same way that having multiple identities does not make you a citizen of nowhere. Bilinguals do not have ‘half-cooked’ grammars or any abilities different from monolingual speakers. Having said this, there are different types of bilingual competences depending on the amount of language input, the onset of acquisition and the social dynamics and power relations of the environment in which a bilingual speaker operates.
WHAT SHALL I DO IF I AM SCARED TO SPEAK MY MINORITY LANGUAGE?
Linguistic rights protect the individual and collective right to choose one’s language or languages for communication both within the private and the public spheres. For minority groups the opportunity to use one’s own language can be of crucial importance, since it protects individual and collective identity and culture as well as participation in public life. For this reason, United Nations Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ensures that linguistic minorities can use their own languages in their community; however, problems often exist at national level. Whether/how one fights for this right is up to the individual, but United Nations recognise linguistic minority rights as part of fundamental human rights and such rights are protected in international law.
WHAT IS THE POINT OF PRESERVING A HERITAGE LANGUAGE?
As ever it is up to the individual to decide whether they continue to speak a heritage/home language or not, whether they pass it on or not to the next generation of speakers and/or whether they abandon it because they no longer see any point in preserving it in their new environment. Sometimes the choice is conscientious, sometimes it is accidental, but most often mandated by often adverse external conditions. However, preserving one’s heritage language does bring all the additive benefits of bilingualism whilst also preserving an ever-crucial link to one’s family past and identity. Preserving a heritage language is linked to a series of existential questions, namely who we are and where we came from. Thus, maintaining heritage languages brings psychological benefits to the individual; and, by extension, also psycho-social benefits for the larger society: preserving a heritage language makes individuals integrating more profoundly because the integration does not have to cost them one of their identities.
AM I TOO OLD TO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE?
It is never late to learn a new language. The process of a learning a new language is always rewarding regardless of one’s age and the benefits can still be substantial. Obviously, to become native speaker one must learn a language since birth, but near-native can still be achieved within the realm of second-language acquisition.