Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett will speak at the Hay Festival about her research into the health and social benefits of multilingualism.

The kind of mental gymnastics that learning a language involves is good for us and for our ageing society. They help us to stay mentally active a bit longer.

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Is monolingualism harming us, both as individuals and as a society? Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics, is leading a major interdisciplinary research project which looks at the value of languages for everything from health and well-being to social cohesion, diplomacy and conflict resolution.

The MEITS project (Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies) is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Open World Research Initiative and seeks to transform the health of the discipline of Modern Languages in the UK, attitudes towards multilingualism and language policy at home and abroad. The motivation for the project comes from an awareness that language learning in the UK is in a very difficult state. “There is a sense that modern languages are in crisis,” says Professor Ayres-Bennett, “and that traditional motivations to get people studying languages are not working. We need exciting new reasons to learn languages and to demonstrate the value of speaking more than one language.”

The project, which finishes in 2020, involves around 30 non-academic partners including schools and voluntary groups and has six interlocking research strands which investigate how the insights gained from stepping outside a single language, culture and mode of thought are vital to individuals and societies.

Professor Ayres-Bennett will speak about three areas of the research in a talk at the Hay Festival for the Cambridge Series, now in its 10th year. The first involves health and builds on research which shows that if you are bilingual dementia onset is on average delayed by up to five years compared to people who are monolingual, and that stroke victims who are bilingual recover cognitively twice as well as monolingual ones. What is more exciting, says Professor Ayres-Bennett, is that even those who learn a language later in life can enjoy certain cognitive benefits. One experiment conducted as part of the project involved a group who learnt Gaelic intensively for a week and were monitored to see if there was any impact on their cognitive abilities. The results were positive. “The kind of mental gymnastics that learning a language involves is good for us and for our ageing society. They help us to stay mentally active a bit longer,” says Professor Ayres-Bennett. “It’s a benefit that is little known, but learning a language is better than any drug currently available for delaying dementia.”

A second area she will speak about is how languages can bring people together and create greater social cohesion. Language is at the heart of some of the current political problems in Northern Ireland, with Irish tending to be viewed with suspicion by the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community. The MEITS project has been working with two charities in Northern Ireland to enhance understanding between the Catholic and Protestant communities. It has been teaching former paramilitaries and future PUL leaders basic Irish. Professor Ayres-Bennett says: “The Irish language doesn’t have to be associated with sectarianism; the aim is to normalise it and show how it is part of everyone’s culture. In addition, demonstrating the origins of Irish place names can show that Irish is part of PUL heritage as well.”

The third area she will touch on involves the work the project is doing with a number of schools in London and East Anglia to change attitudes to languages. It is comparing language learning for children who are monolingual and started learning a language at school with those who have English as an additional language. The students are being tracked over a two-year period. “We want children to value the languages they speak and schools to think consciously about what it means to be multilingual and to see children with more than one language as a resource rather than an inconvenience,” says Professor Ayres-Bennett. She mentions one Polish student who placed himself near the monolingual end of a scale which asked children to consider how multilingual they were because he was just starting to learn French. “He didn’t value his ability to speak Polish. We need to get away from the hierarchy of good and bad languages,” she states. She adds that looking at multilingualism in a positive way improves social cohesion in the classroom as well as potentially improving students’ motivation for learning and their proficiency.

The MEITS project’s findings will be widely disseminated with the aim of raising awareness of all the different areas of policy which language learning affects. “Language is so central to who we are, to our identities, that it has to have a higher profile across all government departments,” says Professor Ayres-Bennett.

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.