The University of Cambridge is to launch a major new research project to study the benefits of multilingualism to individuals and society, and transform attitudes to languages in the UK, as part of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative.

We want to have a transformative effect on language learning, as well as influencing the structures of education, society, culture, public services and policy

Wendy Ayres-Bennett

At a time when more than half the world’s population speaks more than one language in their daily lives, and almost one in five UK primary school pupils have a first language other than English, what does it really mean to be multilingual, and what are the opportunities and challenges of multilingualism for individuals and society?

These questions are amongst those to be answered by a new research project at the University of Cambridge, thanks to an unprecedented £4million grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The project, called Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Society, aims to not only understand people’s experiences of speaking more than one language, but also to change attitudes towards multilingualism and multiculturalism throughout society and amongst key policy-makers.

The project is led by Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, who will work alongside co-researchers in Belfast, Edinburgh and Nottingham as well as international partners in the Universities of Bergen, Girona, Peking and Hong Kong.

Professor Ayres-Bennett said: “Our aim for this project is to create a cultural shift in the conception and practice of language learning. To achieve this, we will consider the value of multilingualism and multiculturalism to the individual, to society and to international relations. We want to have a transformative effect on language learning, as well as influencing the structures of education, society, culture, public services and policy.”

From increased job prospects and economic growth to international relations and diplomacy, there are many clear benefits to multilingualism, yet the strong presence of diverse languages within the UK is often overlooked. The multilingualism project at Cambridge will investigate the relationship between language, culture and identity and the opportunities and challenges multilingualism presents to individuals, communities and society in order to change people’s attitudes towards multilingualism, and to stimulate interest in language learning at all levels.

Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Society is one of four projects being funded by the AHRC as part of the Open World Research Initiative, which aims to explore the central role languages play in relation to contemporary issues such as social cohesion, migration, security, business and diplomacy, and to have a substantial impact on the study of modern languages in the UK. The Cambridge project, together with other AHRC programmes at the University of Oxford, Manchester University and King’s College London, will work with over 100 partners ranging from schools and sixth form colleges to the BBC and government departments in the UK and abroad. The combined research will span 22 languages and 18 academic disciplines.

Professor Ayres-Bennett said: “One of the strengths and distinguishing features of this project is that it will bring together researchers from a range of different subjects, from education, linguistics and literary studies to cognitive psychology and neuroscience.”

The AHRC’s Chief Executive, Professor Andrew Thompson, stated: “The Open World Research Initiative has an ambitious set of aims. As a major, multi-million pound investment, it seeks to raise the profile and visibility of modern languages and the crucial role they play – within their universities, within the arts and humanities, and within society more widely. The AHRC’s flagship Open World Research Initiative will make a vital contribution to our understanding of how modern languages in the UK can best develop to meet the needs of global society over the coming years.”

The Cambridge project will also examine the relationship between multilingualism at home and language learning in school and university, moving beyond the “traditional” divisions between European and non-European languages to reinvigorate interest in language education. Professor Ayres-Bennett commented “the decline in pupils taking language GCSE and A-levels is a matter of concern, whilst the number of children with English as an additional language is often portrayed negatively. Conversely, the value of community and minority languages is underestimated. We can learn much from looking at these issues together.”

Summing up the aims of the project, Professor Ayres-Bennett said: “In short, we wish multilingualism to come to be considered the norm in the UK, as it already is for speakers of community languages. We will learn much from researching multilingualism within and outside of the UK, and so our findings will have international impact and demonstrate how languages can help us respond to the key issues of our time”.

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