Bilingualism in Minority Languages: A Science Perspective

Saturday, February 13, 2016: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM
Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Antonella Sorace, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Multilingualism is the norm in many parts of the world: according to some conservative estimates (Tucker, 1998), at least half of the world’s population speaks two or more languages. While many factors contribute to the increase in bilingualism in traditionally monolingual countries, including transnational population mobility and the status of English as a lingua franca, bilingualism in regional minority languages is declining due to the lack of intergenerational transmission. Fewer parents speak minority languages to their children because of their perceived lack of ‘usefulness’; many people still think that a minority language makes children confused and puts them at a disadvantage at school. These feelings clash with much research on bilingualism, which shows instead that when there are differences between monolingual and bilingual children, these are almost invariably in favor of bilinguals: bilingual children tend to have enhanced language abilities, a better understanding of other people’s points of view, and more mental flexibility in dealing with complex situations.  Many of these effects are also found in adult bilinguals.

A science perspective on minority languages assumes that the brain does not know the difference between prestigious languages and minority languages, or between ‘languages’ and ‘dialects’: so bilingualism with minority languages might in principle have the same cognitive effects as any other type of bilingualism. If so, minority languages should be seen as a resource worth maintaining and cultivating.  However, negative societal attitudes may create an unfavorable learning environment that prevents these effects from surfacing. Other differences may play a role: for example,  children hear the language from a limited range of speakers; teachers and parents may be second language speakers/learners themselves; and there is a frequent lack of institutional support toward the minority language. In this talk I will focus on existing cognitive and linguistic research on bilingualism in minority languages. I will then present what the Edinburgh Bilingualism Matters Centre does to disseminate correct information on bilingualism in different sectors of society and to enable people to make informed decisions in minority language communities