British Academy research project explores evidence for benefits of language learning

29 May 2019

The British Academy today publishes The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning, a research project led by Professor Bencie Woll FBA, UCL Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre, and Professor Li Wei, UCL Institute of Education.

It aims to shape future research and guide public policy by synthesising evidence on the benefits of language learning – including better employment opportunities, more developed analytical skills, and improved memory and empathy.

Almost nine in ten adults surveyed agreed that learning a new language gives better employment opportunities and a similar proportion agreed that learning a language helps to develop analytical skills. And, as today’s report shows, there is now a body of evidence to support the positive perceptions of the benefits of language-learning.

The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning shows evidence for a strong positive correlation between additional language-learning and the development of creativity. Researchers also pointed to evidence that younger children who learn sign language in a pre-school setting attain a greater appreciation of cultural diversity and different ways of communicating. Further to this, sign language-learners of all ages develop enhanced spatial processing abilities and face-processing skills. However, reviewing recent studies, researchers highlighted the need for more research to demonstrate the link between language learning and other cognitive traits such as creativity and improved aptitude for other subjects such as literacy, maths and science.

The project found that recent studies into the cognitive benefits of language-learning questioned whether there is a causal link between bilingualism and traits such as cognitive flexibility and the ability to multitask.

Recent research is now also beginning to challenge the theory that language-learning programmes for older people help to delay ageing by building cognitive reserve – a further area where more research is required in order to shape public policy.

In the light of these findings, Professors Woll and Wei identified the need for further research into the following areas:

  • The cross-curricular benefits of language learning for UK students

  • The relationship between language learning in later life and the development of cognitive reserve

  • The relationship between learning a language and development of empathy

  • The correlation between language learning or bilingualism and creativity

The findings of the study will help to support the generally positive public perceptions of language-learning and help policy-makers identify ways to harness language education’s cross-curricular benefits.

In February, the British Academy published a report, Languages in the UK, examining the provision of language and linguistics skills in the UK with the Academy of Medical Sciences; the Royal Academy of Engineering; and the Royal Society. The joint report called for the implementation of a national languages strategy to transform the UK into a ‘linguistic powerhouse’.

Professor Bencie Woll FBA, Honorary Professor at the Faculty of Brain Sciences, UCL Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre, and Principal Investigator behind the report, said:

“This project is a systematic review of research into the cognitive benefits of language learning in the UK and its impact on different demographic groups. Recent research demonstrates that there are great benefits to developing language skills, including enhanced creativity, while research conducted in other countries has highlighted numerous cross-curricular benefits, such as improved literacy and maths skills.

“While there is still only limited understanding of the connection between language learning and additional cognitive traits, this important research will contribute to broadening perspectives about the benefits of learning a language and could either challenge or substantiate certain popular beliefs.”

Professor Neil Kenny, Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy said:

“Creativity ranks high in many employers’ wish-list for a workforce able to find solutions to the challenges of the twenty-first century. This survey of research confirms what has been long suspected: that we can boost our creativity by learning languages. It’s not hard to see why: learning a language stops you over-relying on the same old habits and reflexes; it pushes your mind in new directions; it makes you able to adopt an unfamiliar mindset. That’s also why language-learning boosts our children’s achievement in other areas of the curriculum.

“People of all ages who have done little or no effective language-learning are really missing out. And yet there are millions of them in the UK. That’s why the British Academy is calling for a national strategy for languages.”

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