Multilingualism is good for your mind — and body data recovery no root

Ayres-Bennett spoke at the recent Hay Festival in Wales on the latest outcomes of research done through the university’s Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies project. People who can only speak one language take longer to recover from strokes, get early-onset dementia before multilinguals develop it and generally find it harder to concentrate, she says.

The ambitious project is aimed at combating the alarming drop in willingness in the UK to study other languages. The numbers are paradoxical: although more children indicate that they want to learn other languages at school, they lose interest at the end of their teenage years. From 2000 to 2015, the number of students taking courses in languages other than English dropped 57%.

The project’s work is of great interest for SA.

While most South Africans can speak more than one language and several can speak more, the conventional wisdom is that learning another language is a luxury that should take second place to "economic skills" such as science and maths.

Even figures showing that multinational companies — those offering the best salaries — would rather employ English-speaking Swiss people with the same qualifications than a typical Brit because they have to be proficient in three languages to pass at Swiss schools, fails to make an impression.

However, there were objections against the Canadian study and in 2011 the Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies project repeated it. To remove other causes, the Cambridge psychologists attached to the project sought an ideal sample group among their 30-odd collaborators across the world.

The project has also done work to debunk several myths about multilingualism. Ayres-Bennett says it is not true that bilingual people are better lovers than monolinguals. Neither are children little sponges able to soak up more languages than adults — there is no small window of language acquisition that closes after childhood.

In 2016 the project’s psychologists found a correlation between multilingualism and an early recovery from strokes. It also improves the ability to concentrate. The team launched a study using a common and efficient test to compare attention spans. This involves subjects standing in a simulated lift with sounds indicating whether it is going up or down. Other sounds are then introduced, forcing the subjects to concentrate more.

Using subjects who had been learning another language for a year, the project team found that multilinguals scored much better. They repeated the test with subjects studying another language for a week only and, while their results were not as good, the gap was still large.

While machines can simulate the translation process, they will never be able to do so at a level of proper human communication. "They have nothing to do with language," Tomalin says of their inner workings, "they have nothing to do with words." They treat sentences as mathematical problems to be solved, seeking patterns between sets of data, rather than meaning.

Another obstacle is the constant mutations in languages. In a talk at the festival on English dialects, University of Swansea linguist Rob Penhallurick said "a living language is always changing, and we are entering another era of great change". Language and dialect also do not respect borders, he adds.

The team found monolingualism to be a major stumbling block, with especially the Protestant Unionists believing that the Catholics in the province had annexed the Irish language as their own, to be shared only by their fellow Irish across the border. Guided by the project’s members, some Unionists have begun to learn Gaelic in a physical demonstration that no language belongs to one community alone.