By Stephen Mullan, English Content Editor for the British Council
Dr Mirjana Bozic is a Lecturer at the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, and Fellow and Director of Studies in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at King's College, Cambridge. We spoke to Dr Bozic ahead of her plenary session, on the neuro-cognitive consequences of bilingualism, at our English teachers' conference in Madrid on Saturday 29 September 2018.
Could you describe some of the ways in which the psychological and behavioural sciences have had, or are having, an impact on education in general, and the teaching of languages in particular?
Psychology is the science of our mind and brain, and it is difficult to find areas of human activity where psychological findings have not been used to explain the underlying mental processes, or to suggest how they could be advanced. Education is a prime example: there is a huge body of research on the psychological processes involved in learning and development, from how children develop cognitive skills, such as language or reasoning, to the mechanisms of memory and attention, and factors that drive social interactions. This has led to the introduction of many evidence-based educational practices, e.g. direct instruction in both small- and large-group formats; interactive lessons; and peer-tutoring programs, etc. It has emphasised the importance of setting clear expectations, and teaching that is responsive to cultural, linguistic and other contextual needs – most of which are a staple practice in any modern education system.
Regarding the teaching of languages in particular, based on the research over the last few decades, we now know that learning more than one language does not lead to language confusion or difficulty succeeding in academic environments. On the contrary, the experience of learning and using multiple languages might even incur some cognitive benefits outside the direct language domain – although the nature and the extent of these benefits are hotly debated in the scientific literature.
Your talk is on the neuro-cognitive consequences of bilingualism. Could you outline a few of the most significant consequences?
Being bilingual is beneficial across a host of personal, economic, social and cultural dimensions; enhancing one’s communication capacity, job prospects and travel opportunities. In addition, bilingualism has been linked to several neuro-cognitive changes. One of the most notable of these changes is to the capacity to attend selectively to something in the presence of interference, and to inhibit unwanted information. This is because both of the bilingual’s languages are simultaneously active in the brain, and bilinguals regularly need to switch between them and inhibit the unwanted one. Many studies have found that bilinguals tend to outperform monolinguals in tasks demanding selective attention and inhibition of interfering information (for instance, listening to someone in a very noisy room). However, as mentioned above, further research is needed here. Other proposed neuro-cognitive consequences of bilingualism are enhanced metalinguistic awareness (the ability to reflect upon language as a system), and there is also recent evidence that bilingualism might delay the onset of neurodegenerative disease! It is, however, important to note that bilingualism has also been associated with some cognitive costs, including somewhat reduced vocabulary in each of their languages and occasionally slower retrieval of the desired word (often experienced as the frustrating ‘tip of the tongue’ episode). One possible reason for these costs is that bilinguals split the usage of their languages, and are therefore less frequently exposed to the words in each of them, which slows down the retrieval.
In sum, bilingualism is clearly beneficial across a number of domains, with benefits overwhelmingly outweighing the costs. However, ‘bilingual advantage’, defined as improved attentional and cognitive control, remains controversial, and reducing it to a simple yes-no question is unlikely to be helpful.
What implications does your research have for teachers of foreign languages? In what way might students feel its implications in the classroom?
The research in my group has shown that bilinguals’ brains processes information differently from monolinguals, even when the two groups are performing the same simple task, and are equally successful in doing it. We have also seen that this is further affected by the similarity between bilinguals’ languages, with preliminary data showing some interesting neural differences between the bilingual speakers of more similar languages (e.g. English and Dutch) compared to the less similar ones (e.g. English and Spanish). This reinforces the existing findings that bilingualism does not lead to language confusion: our brains simply adapt to new demands, the same as when we learn to drive or play an instrument. An important implication of our findings though is that bilinguals possess a different constellation of neuro-cognitive skills and capacities compared to monolinguals, which may not be fully met or harnessed in the current education system – a hypothesis that we will explore in more detail in our future work. If proven correct, this will have profound consequences for the classroom, going beyond the practices specific to second language education.
Can you offer any consolation to those of us who sometimes feel frustrated when learning a second language?
The term ‘bilingual’ is a very broad one, and encompasses both children who grew up learning two languages from birth, and are able to switch between them effortlessly, and the adults struggling with that funny foreign pronunciation or conjugation system they are trying to learn. The good news is that both of those scenarios (and the countless ones in between those two ends of the spectrum) are giving our brain the mental stimulation needed to exercise the capacities for selective attention and inhibition of unwanted information – in some cases possibly even more so in late adult learners, who need to inhibit the strongly entrenched first language in order to master the nuances of the second. In other words, as frustrating as it might be, the effort of learning and using a second language later in life will most likely still produce many of the cognitive benefits discussed above.
Another strand of your research focuses on the use of neuroimaging techniques to investigate the neural architecture of language comprehension. Might such techniques have profound consequences for education in our lifetimes? And what do you make of the ‘eliminativist’ belief that our common-sense understanding of the world (so-called 'folk psychology') might be changed radically – or, indeed, changed beyond recognition – by future advances in neuroscience?
Being able to see how the brain functions and changes during the development of, for instance, reading or maths skills is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary for the understanding how these abilities are acquired, and how they can be supported when things do not go to plan. For instance, neuroimaging research has shown that children in kindergarten produce similar brain activity when seeing written words and when looking at circles or rectangles – suggesting that children at this stage process words as pictures, and that they may not be developmentally ready for the acquisition of knowledge about individual letters and letter combinations. Similarly, using neuroimaging techniques, developmental dyslexia has been strongly linked to problems with deciphering letter-to-sound correspondence, or with hearing rhythm, and this knowledge has been used to devise methods to help dyslexic readers. I am, therefore, a firm believer that further advances in our understanding of how the brain supports our extraordinary ability to learn can, and will, have profound, positive consequences – changing many of our existing beliefs in the process.
Many thanks, Mirjana. We're looking forward to hearing more about your research on bilingualism in Madrid on 29 September.
Register now to attend Dr Bozic's talk at our teachers' conference, at the British Council School in Pozuelo de Alarcón, on Saturday 29 September. If you can't attend in person, the plenary session will be streamed on Facebook Live. Saturday 29 September also sees teachers' conferences in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca.