Learning a language opens new worlds, lets us engage with a wide range of ideas, peoples and cultures – and is even rumoured to make us appear more attractive. But does it increase our ability to acquire new knowledge, to reason, to understand other people’s emotions, our creativity or our memory – in short, our cognitive abilities? A project funded by the British Academy, led by Professor Bencie Woll FBA and Professor Li Wei, reviews the academic evidence base for cognitive, academic and age-related benefits of learning a language to any level of fluency – as distinct from being bilingual.
- There is a substantial body of research supporting a link between bilingualism and cognitive flexibility (reflected in the ability to switch languages). However, the evidence for the relationship between the mental ability to control our behaviour and language learning is complex and inconsistent. Learning a new language through an immersive process does appear to improve functions like attention and mental alertness.
- It has been shown that people who speak other languages often exhibit more empathy and a global mindset. Researchers have recorded the sensation felt by some of being a ‘different person’ when speaking their second language. However, we can’t be sure of what causes what. Are people with a global mindset more likely to wish to learn a language and more likely to excel in them – or is an interest in and openness to other cultures a result of learning a language?
- In contrast, there is strong evidence for a positive effect of learning a language on creativity in language use. Fluency, originality and creative flexibility are improved in one’s first language when learning a second language. This may be due to the cognitive practices involved in learning a new language, such as the willingness and adaptability to change required for language switching, or the rigorous practice and study involved in language learning, but we need more research to understand how this differs by age and gender, and the learning strategy.
- The evidence for the impact of language learning on academic achievement is somewhat clearer. Around 90% of studies looking at the effect learning a language has on achievement in other subjects of the school curriculum report a positive impact, across English language learning, literacy, maths and science. This seems to be the case for language learners from a variety of countries, with different language combinations, and from varied socio-economic backgrounds.
- Dual language learners may initially lag behind their monolingual peers in academic performance, but they catch up and show the most benefit across the curriculum after several years’ immersion in language learning. Students from a minority-language background tend to have better academic performances in English reading and maths if they continue to learn and develop their native language. For instance, students who continued to learn their first language, Spanish, at their school in the United States made faster progress in English and Maths than their peers who did not have Spanish immersion classes.
- However, very few of these studies on the relationship between academic performance and language learning have involved individuals whose first language is English, or been carried out in a UK context. This requires further investigation before making recommendations for policy change.
- Cognitive decline in later years is a major issue for society. Language learning programmes aimed at older populations may be an optimal solution for building cognitive reserve, because language learning engages an extensive brain network that is known to overlap with the regions negatively affected by the aging process. However, our report highlights more recent research which calls into question the strength of the connection between bilingualism and the prevention of dementia.
For the British Academy, this project provides an important evidence base for demonstrating the concrete benefits of language learning, in terms that will speak to parents and to policy makers. A survey conducted as part of the project showed that public perceptions of the value of language learning are very positive – this a strong basis for beginning to address the ongoing decline in the number of people taking up language qualifications in school and higher education.
The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning project was led by Professor Bencie Woll, Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London and Professor Li Wei, Institute of Education, University College London.
Benjamin Kulka is a Policy Advisor (HE & Skills) at the British Academy.