Episode 1: Prof. Antonella Sorace & Bilingualism Matters

Episode 1 – 1 October 2020

In our first-ever episode, we interview Prof. Antonella Sorace. Antonella Sorace is Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. She is a world-leading authority and has published widely in the field of bilingualism across the lifespan, where she brings together methods from linguistics, experimental psychology, and cognitive science. She is also committed to bringing research to people in different sectors of society. She is the founding director of the research and information centre Bilingualism Matters, which currently has 27 branches in three different continents.

We discuss the idea behind Bilingualism Matters, the necessity for research and science communication, her own experiences and questions about bilingualism in general.

Listen here!

Episode Transcript

[Carine] Hello and welcome to the very first episode of the Much Language Such Talk podcast. Today you’ll be hearing from me, Carine, and another Bilingualism Matters volunteer, Jessica, who is a PhD student in psychology. To kick off the podcast, today we’re joined by the founder and the director of Bilingualism Matters, Professor Antonella Sorace. Antonella is a professor in developmental linguistics and conducts research on bilingualism with various age groups, cognitive aspects of bilingualism, such as aging and bilingualism and interactions between languages. We’re extremely excited to ask her a ton of questions to help us understand what bilingualism is, what it means to be bilingual and why there was and is a need for a research centre focused on these questions. So welcome, Antonella.

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[Antonella] Hello

[Carine] Hello, how are you?

[Antonella] Hi. I’m very well. How are you?

[Carine] Doing really good actually. We had a nice beautiful day, didn’t we? 

[Antonella] Yes.

[Carine] We’re also here joined today with Jessica. Jessica, please say hi.

[Jessica] Hi. 

[Carine] How are you doing?

[Jessica] Good good.

[Carine] So shall we just jump right in? Are we ready? All right. So, of course, I think it’s a pretty important question to ask. But how did you develop an interest in studying bilingualism? And did you grow up bilingual yourself?

[Antonella] I’m actually Italian. I was born and raised in Italy. And I grew up as a passive bilingual because Italian was obviously my main language. But my mother was a native speaker of Sardinian. And although she never spoke in Sardinian to me, she spoke it with other relatives. And so I heard enough Sardinian spoken around me to develop passive competency in Sardinian. 

[Carine] So she never directed Sardinian to you at all?

[Antonella] No, she didn’t. 

[Carine] That’s really interesting. Sardinian is only spoken on Sardinia?

[Antonella] In Sardinia, which is an island. Yeah, the second largest island in the Mediterranean.

[Carine] Wow. They have their own language. It’s really amazing when you start, especially I think Italy is one of those ones, that has such an interesting and diverse regional dialects as well. 

[Antonella] That’s right. 

[Carine] The fact that the islands also are quite different is also… 

[Antonella] Sardinian is a language, no, it’s not a dialect. But we can come back to the distinction between dialects and languages, because that’s a very interesting question.

[Carine] That’s a question of its own. So is this where you developed your interest in studying bilingualism?

[Antonella] Well, actually, when I was a child, I wasn’t really aware of the fact that you know, Sardinian was another language and so on. I became interested in my own experience of learning English, which didn’t start until my teenage years, and then I became interested in how I was learning English and how my English was improving. And then I, at the University, I wrote a thesis on bilingualism, you know, but basically, my own experience was the starting point. And it’s only later that I understood that yes, I mean, I was actually passive bilingual with Sardinian without realizing it.

[Carine] It’s amazing. Yeah, it’s the environment you’re in.

[Jessica] Cool, interesting. So also, we’re wondering, how did you come up with the idea to set up a research and information centre on bilingualism?

[Antonella] The idea came from the fact that I became very aware that people know very little about bilingualism. There are lots of misconceptions. There are lots of prejudices. And at that time, so in the mid-, sort of around 2007, 2006 and 2007, I had school-aged children. And so I was really aware of how little teachers knew, for example, about bilingualism. How little other parents and other families knew about bilingualism. So I thought, well, here we are, we are researchers we work on precisely on this topic. And I think we have some responsibility to make sure that our research gets out of the ivory tower and reaches people who have to make decisions about bilingualism all the time. Yeah. And very often they make decisions based on misconceptions and prejudices and so on. So I thought, well, maybe we have some responsibility. And that’s where the decision to start Bilingualism Matters came. So in 2008, we launched Bilingualism Matters as a local service for Edinburgh parents and teachers.

[Jessica] Yes. And was there anything before Bilingualism Matters?

[Antonella] No, there was nothing.

[Jesscia] There was nothing.

[Carine] There weren’t any other kinds of information centres? Not at all?

[Antonella] No, not at all.

[Carine] Is that just Edinburgh or is that worldwide?

[Antonella] Well, you know, there are lots of people now, particularly now, I mean, not so much then, I think, you know, but people who give free advice on bilingualism you know, I mean, based on their experience and so on, but there was no centre based on research.

[Jesscia] Wow. So you’re the first one to set this up.

[Antonella] I believe so. 

[Jessica] This is really important and I agree with you that we have the responsibility. We’re also curious to know how you decided on the name Bilingualism Matters, why not Multilingualism?

[Antonella] Well actually, in a sense I regret that we didn’t call it Multilingualism Matters, because every time we have to explain that, what we mean by bilingualism is more than one language, and that applies equally well to trilingualism, quadrolingualism or you know, however many languages you want to put in the picture. So at that time, you know, we, we didn’t think of that and I thought okay, Bilingualism Matters, you know, is what we decided, but then we became aware that for some people, in fact, for many people, bilingualism means two languages only. And so we have to explain that bilingualism for us has a very broad meaning. And it means more than one.

[Carine] I think also, more people understand, maybe identify with the name bilingual over the word multilingual. Just because there’s always in the question of like, how, when can you call yourself bilingual, when can you call yourself multilingual?

[Antonella] Absolutely, absolutely. 

[Carine] I think it’s something we all kind of struggle with a little bit, like I consider myself to be bilingual. I kind of speak three languages.

[Antonella] Also, there was another factor. There is a publisher called Multilingualism Matters.

[Carine] Ah, yes.

[Jessica] Oh, so it’s a bit more distinct from that.

[Antonella] We didn’t want to confuse people.

[Carine] So what were your original goals for Bilingualism Matters? Like what was the main outset other than, you know, helping with misinformation? Was there like something specific other than that? Or was it?

[Antonella] Well, as I said, you know, our scope was fairly narrow at the beginning, we, we thought, well, first of all, by we, I mean, myself, and many volunteers. Without volunteers, I want to say this very clearly, and thank you, for you guys, you know, to everybody around me, without volunteers, we wouldn’t be where we are. And at the beginning, it was just volunteers and me, and myself. So our scope was fairly limited. We thought, okay, teachers, parents and teachers in Edinburgh, because as I said, you know, my own experience as a parent, you know, was very salient, you know, in this context. And so, we thought, okay, we’ll write to all schools in the Edinburgh area, we sent them a letter, and I believe in email, as well, but you know, certainly a hard copy of a letter. And we said, here we are, we exist. And if you would like a talk, you know, we can come and give you a talk. And then people started responding, not everybody, a small number at the beginning and then, and then, you know, slowly, slowly, you know, we started becoming better known. So the aim was to communicate to parents and teachers, that’s what was the original aim, to communicate what bilingualism is, and why it’s a good thing, and why it doesn’t cause confusion. And why if you are a family who comes from another language background, it’s a good idea to keep speaking your mother tongue, rather than switching into English. So there were many, many aspects of bilingualism, you know, having to do with parents and teachers that we wanted to base ourselves, well, our work on at the beginning. And then we started attracting attention from other sectors.

[Carine] Yeah, so how did like, because things have changed a lot over the last 10 years. So like, how have the goals changed? What are we really focusing on now?

[Antonella] Well, first of all, yes, I mean, we communicate, and we work with a much wider range of people and sectors of society. So we started collaborating with policymakers, for example, Scottish Government, for example, or local education authorities, health professionals, so people who give advice about languages or language skills in children, so speech and language therapists, and paediatricians and so on and so forth. And then more recently, businesses as well. So our, the range of sectors of society that we interacted with definitely expanded. And also we started expanding geographically as well. So we started attracting attention from Universities and researchers in other countries, and we had the idea of having branches of Bilingualism Matters in other countries. And so we started having, building our international network. And so from being a local information service for parents and teachers in Edinburgh, we became a research and information centre, so based on research, not just our own research, obviously, because nobody is an expert on everything.

[Carine] It would be nice if we were. 

[Antonella] Absolutely. Well, I’m not sure it would be. I think working with other people is one of the best aspects of being an academic, and it should be recognized more. So interdisciplinarity, working across disciplinary boundaries, that is what we need. And that’s definitely what we need for public engagement in this field, as well as in other fields. So yes, having a research and information centre means being able to base our advice on research, not just our own, but also other people’s research, collaborative research that we do with other people, and make sure that people make informed decisions.

[Carine] I think informed decisions is something that we can all, always just do a little bit more with these days. 

[Jessica] So you mentioned also that at the start, it was just you and a few volunteers, how was it at the start for you to run it on your own? And how do you feel that changed in 2014?

[Antonella] Well, it was interesting. Because, at the beginning, it was obviously a lot more work for myself as an academic, in addition to everything that an academic is expected to do. So teaching, doing research, supervising students, doing administration, and all the duties that an academic is supposed to have. So at the beginning, I think there wasn’t much awareness of the fact that doing this kind of large scale public engagement takes time. And it really adds, you know, to your work in a very, very conspicuous way. So I think it took a little bit of time to persuade the University that this was, in fact, something big, something important and something to be taken seriously.

[Carine] Yeah, I think I would say that over the last five years especially knowledge exchange has become much more prominent on University campuses/ Even when I was an undergraduate that was not, not that long, but it feels like also 700 years ago the same time. But like, knowledge exchange wasn’t a big thing. It was exchanging information within the University across Universities, but not as much with the general public. So like, I would say, yeah, over the last five years, especially, it’s becoming a lot more like prominent that the general public should definitely have an understanding and more of a say kind of. They definitely should be part of the engagement of academic research. Because it is, everyone should know what’s going on. I think it’s really important.

[Antonella] So in 2014, we became a centre. And I was allowed to hire support staff for the centre for the first time. And that was really a major change. But again, you know, without the volunteers, the many volunteers that we had, at every single point of this trajectory, we wouldn’t be where we are. I mean, you know, it wouldn’t be, it wouldn’t work if it was just me, and the two people working in my team. And I think you know, it’s one of the, I think, one of the aspects that we developed over time, is also training students, training students, and also other academics to communicate clearly, what they want to communicate to different kinds of people. I think this is something that is not really appreciated very much. But it’s very, very important. Being able to communicate what you’re doing, for example, in research in clear terms, in terms that everybody can understand. I think, you know, that is one of the aspects that we, we develop, and we’re still developing, and I think this is one of the advantages of getting involved with Bilingualism Matters. 

[Carine] Definitely, yes, I would definitely agree with that. Since 2011, the Bilingualism Matters network has really began to grow. So how did, we kind of touched upon this a little bit, but how did the idea of branches come about? Was it just that academics were coming to approach you? Was it that like, you had somehow, not necessarily that you had friends in other places, but it was it that people had seen you speak and it’s in the research that you were doing, and they had become interested in wanting to collaborate. So what how did that trajectory happen?

[Antonella] I think it’s mostly, in fact, all our branches actually got in touch with us, you know, expressing interest. So we, it’s not that we actively chase people. In, in all cases, it’s a group of academics, in particular Universities, in many cases, obviously, I knew them personally, but not in all cases. And they became interested in the idea of having a centre for public engagement and having a centre that specifically focuses on communicating research to the general public, because that was, and still is a fairly original idea. And so they wanted to join in as a branch. And so we started developing relationships with particular universities, you know, we’re opening branches in different countries,

[Carine] And speaking of in different countries, and how many different countries and how many branches are there right now?

[Antonella] At the moment, there are 26 branches, including us. And in, well, how many countries? Well, certainly three continents. I think more than 20 countries.

[Carine] Because there are some countries that do have more than one branch.

[Antonella] Yes, yes, definitely. Definitely. Including the UK.

[Jessica] Yeah. And you also mentioned before the importance of communicating clearly, so clear communication about bilingualism and bringing that to the community. So you give a lot of talks to different types of audiences. And we’re also curious to know, what your experience is there. How is it? What’s it like for you to give talks to so many different types of audiences, such a range of different types of audiences?

[Antonella] I, at this point, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve have given several hundreds of talks, possibly close to 1000. It’s just unbelievable.

[Carine] We’ve seen your calendar, it’s quite busy.

[Antonella] But every time, I feel excited about talking to people, even if, you know, in to some extent, you know, talks tend to be similar. I mean, talks to particular sectors of society tend to be similar, but not identical. And I think, again, you know, I think it’s, I feel very happy when I see that the message gets through. And I learned the hard way, you know, because nobody trained me to communicate, you know. 

[Carine] We’re the lucky ones.

[Antonella] And so I think, you know, learning to communicate, for example, you know, to people at very different levels of education, with very different levels of English, for example, is a very useful experience, because you have to be able to, it has to be clear in your mind, what you want to communicate, what the main message is, among the many, many different details that we are familiar with as researchers. So what are the important details for this particular audience? And you have to be able to say, yes, this is number one, and this is number two. And if I have time, I’ll talk about number three, otherwise, I won’t. And I think it’s very, very important and very useful.

[Jessica] And do you also, do you have a preference for giving talks to, for example, I don’t know, schools or community or also maybe giving lectures to students, linguistics students at the University, do you have a preference?

[Antonella] I love, I love talking to people. I don’t have any preferences. But I want to be clear that the two feed each other. I mean, and this is what I was talking about. So if you’re an academic, and you also know how to talk to known academics, your research gets better, and your communication skills get better, no matter what you are, who you’re talking to. 

[Carine] Everyone says that this quote is by Einstein, but as I think I’ve heard somewhere else on the internet that Einstein is one of the most misquoted people in the world. ‘If you can’t explain your research to a four-year-old or to a child, then you don’t understand your research’. So I think it’s also, it’s not just important for the general audience, but it’s important for us as academics, because then it becomes clear to us what we’re actually doing. 

[Antonella] Absolutely. 

[Carine] It’s also nice to, you know, hear people say nice things about your research as well.

[Antonella] But another thing that I think we are all learning is how to deal with the new kind of prejudices and misconceptions about bilingualism that we are at a lucky time when we’re dealing with the old misconceptions, but also some new misconceptions that come out of the misreading of research. And you know, on the one hand, you still have people who think that bilingualism is confusing and, you know, for a young child. On the other hand, you have people who think that bilingualism makes children more intelligent.

[Carine] I think my favourite, I saw a BBC article that was just like, we have discovered the fountain of youth. And then you read the article and it’s just like, we didn’t read the paper. Well, like, that could help but yeah. But speaking of misconceptions, a perfect segway. So there are a lot of misconceptions about bilingualism, as you’ve said, they a lot of them are, they’ve been around for quite a long time and research has, I guess, disproven many of them or at least, or other one’s kind of given weight to them. So can you tell us a bit about the most common myths that you hear about?

[Antonella] Well, I think there are myths about child bilingualism. So again, you know, two languages too soon may be confusing for a child, it might mean that a child doesn’t really learn to speak any language properly. There are myths about adult bilingualism as well. So you can’t learn a language well, after a certain age. So, and we know that that’s not true. There are myths about certain kinds of bilingualism. So bilingualism with minority languages, that’s not very useful. So why bother? It’s all, it’s much better to invest in important languages or prestigious languages? 

[Carine]  What does that even mean.

[Antonella] So our message is that bilingualism in any languages is good. It’s good for the brain. It’s good for society, it’s good for relationships, it’s good because it opens the mind, no matter, you know, how prestigious the language is. And so all kinds of bilingualism need to be encouraged. 

[Jessica] And what is it like to convince people with very strong beliefs, about the benefits of bilingualism? Is it even possible? How do you feel?

[Antonella] Well, I mean, I think we have to distinguish between immediate feedback after a talk, you know, and usually people are very happy, or they may be very surprised about what they’ve heard, and happy to hear that. Another thing is long term changes. And of course, you know, we all want to contribute to long term changes. But as the name suggests, you know, long term changes take time, and so we can’t see the results immediately. But that shouldn’t discourage us. Because, you know, we have to continue, and we have to continue, we have to collaborate, you know, with more people to make sure that in the long term, we start seeing some results. In some cases, we are seeing some results, but in other cases, we can just hope for the best because we, these changes take time.

[Carine] It’d be nice if some changes could happen overnight, but you need to be a little bit more patient.

[Antonella] You’re talking about changing people’s attitude.

[Carine] Yeah, it’s hard to do. I mean, it’s hard to remind myself to like, have less than two cups of coffee a day, so I can’t imagine just trying to get people to understand things about like language and science and all those things as well. But what is the weirdest question you’ve ever been asked by someone?

[Antonella] Um, well, I can think of a person in Sardinia who asked me, well, I can see that, you know, you think that we should value Sardinian and bilingualism with Sardinian. But Sardinian is really ugly. Is there anything we can do about that? Yes. Yes. I mean, that is part of the many misconceptions. 

[Carine] So did they ask you, if there’s a way we can change the language the sound quote on quote nicer?

[Antonella] You know, it’s, it doesn’t sound nice. It sounds ugly. And so that says it all, that says it all. 

[Carine] That’s true, oh my God.

[Jessica] Do, on the other hand, do you also have any heartwarming or touching stories that you’d like to share with us?

[Anonella] Well, I can tell you that it happens several times to me, that, after I talk to migrant families, newly arrived migrant families, people with very little English, many interpreters there one message at a time as I said, point number one, two, maybe three. I had people crying. 

[Carine, Jessica] Oh, wow.

[Antonella] In tears because they said nobody ever said that to us, about the value of our language. That is really, that is really moving.

[Carine]  Yeah, I think our languages are really important to us. They’re a huge part of identities. I can imagine. Especially having to, if you were either forced to leave your home or just having to leave and going to a new community, like having someone reinforce that idea that this is so important.

[Antonella] Yes, this is so important, and you should keep speaking it because you’re giving a gift to your child.

[Carine] That’s fantastic. Overall, how would you say that views on bilingualism have changed? Like, have we progressed or are we still in the same place kind of?

[Antonella] As I said, you know, I think in many ways, you know, we are progressing. Attitudes are changing a bit, you know, I can see the level of language learning in schools, for example, and general attitudes of people towards language learning, although we can’t forget that bilingualism can be very political as well. And so for example, in the current political climate, we know that language learning, interest in language learning is going down in certain areas of the country. 

[Carine] Is this specifically Scotland?

[Antonella] It’s not specifically Scotland. It’s more in England, in other areas of the country, but we have to be vigilant. Because, obviously, I mean, again, this is a contribution that we can give, you know, we can’t change things magically. But particularly at difficult political times, like the one that we’re living, I think our contribution is important. So persuading people that yes, I mean, learning other languages is still very important. If anything, it’s more important than before, because it really keeps us in touch with people. It allows us to understand, you know, where people come from, it allows you to understand people’s ideas and proposals. And that’s so important, especially at the time right now when boundaries are going up again.

[Carine] Yeah, I think a lot of people also use the excuse that we all speak English. So why don’t we just speak English. But there really is something about learning someone else’s language.

[Antonella] Well, that has always been a problem in the so-called Anglosphere, which includes not only this country, obviously, but other English speaking countries. And, so the people’s perception that everybody speaks English, which is not even true, but it’s true that English is the most studied language in the world. And so people don’t see the importance, partly because they only see the instrumental value of bilingualism. So they say, well, you know, everybody speaks English. Why should we bother to learn another language?

[Carine] Like for business, I don’t need it for anything else.

[Antonella] Exactly. But if they understand that learning a language is actually much more than having an instrument that allows you to do business with another country, it really is an investment for individuals, for societies, then that should be a very strong argument.

[Carine, Jessica] I agree.

[Antonella] That’s what we are, we are contributing to.

[Carine] So those are the questions we’ve prepared from ourselves. But we’ve actually also gathered a couple of questions from our public. So the first one we have, the first question that we have, is saying that you’ve raised both of your kids bilingually. So what was your experience with that, as especially growing up in an area where many children are raised, quote on quote monolingual?

[Antonella] Well, we, I’m lucky enough to have a husband who is a polyglot. So he’s very aware of the importance of multilingualism. And he speaks Italian very well. So we did everything we could to reinforce Italian as a minority language. And we were successful. Obviously, our sons reached the point where English became the dominant language, but that that is completely predictable. But they’re still speaking Italian to me. So Italian is very well-rooted. And they learned many other languages. Because that was one of the advantages of bilingualism, right? You’ll find it easier to learn other languages.

[Carine] Do you only English or Italian at home?

[Antonella] Yeah, we spoke English and Italian.

[Carine] And your kids have learned what other languages?

[Antonella] Oh, well, my younger son learned Spanish, Portuguese, Russian. My older son learned German, French. Yes.

[Carine] Oh, man. That’s fantastic. Wow.

[Jessica] So the second question that we got from the public is, can parents raise kids bilingually even if they’re speaking not in their mother tongue? And does this have an effect on children’s language proficiency?

[Antonella] This is becoming more and more common. It’s one of the most frequent questions that we get asked. And the short answer is yes. What we say to these parents is, if you feel comfortable enough to speak another language, why not? I mean, the most important thing is communication with your child, obviously, right? It’s not teaching a language to your child. It has to be fluent and easy communication. If you feel comfortable enough to do that in another language, why not? And then the next question is, you know, from parents, but will my child acquire my mistakes, non-native accents, mispronunciations and so on? And the answer to that is that your child won’t do that if they hear the language not only from you, but from other people as well. So hearing the language spoken in different ways from different people is very important, both for monolingual acquisition, so a child who, you know, hears the language spoken by many people, of course, but also for bilingual acquisition. And so a child who hears the language spoken by different speakers doesn’t automatically acquire all the characteristics of individual speakers, but is able to regularise. And so there’s no danger of that.


[Carine]
So is there, is it the debate of quality over quantity then, is it just quantity at that point, is getting as much input as possible?

[Antonella] No, I think both quantity and quality are important. I mean, by quality as I mean, you know, not just from one person, but for more than, right? Yeah, a mini-community if you want, if there isn’t a community already, forming a mini-community is important. And hearing the language you know, from children, for example, or from people, different people, because that gives the child the awareness that, this is not just the special language that I speak with mommy or daddy. That’s the language that is used by many people. That’s the language that you can say anything in exactly like what, whatever the other language is the majority language.

[Carine] I think that’s my favourite story that you’ve told me, was that you were in Italy, once with one of your sons and you were at a playground, it was when he recognized everyone was speaking Italian around him. He was like, Mom, they speak Italian too!

[Antonella] Yeah that’s that was it, I think, a turning point in his perception, you know, as he realized, Yes. Wow. Everybody speaks Italian. For him, you know, it was a sudden realization. I think it raised the status of Italian in his mind.

[Jessica] Yes, also recognizing Italian. This is how I can communicate with others, with friends.

[Antonella] Yeah, it’s exactly like English. You know, you can say anything and lots of people use it.

[Carine]  And people will understand you.

[Jessica] All right. So what would you say is your best piece of advice that you would give to parents who are planning on raising their kids bilingually?

[Antonella] That’s a very, very difficult question. For parents, the, you want the most important advice to parents? Um, value the languages that you speak. Make sure that, you know you, you communicate the value of your languages to your children. Be enthusiastic about your languages. Try to transmit a positive message. That’s the most important message for parents. I think.

[Carine] Such an easy job. That’s a very good point. Yeah, you have to enjoy it as well. Yeah, that’s really important. So is there a point, we have another question, sorry. So yeah, our next question is, is there a point where it gets too chaotic to learn a new language? And is their mess, possibly too many languages? So is how many is too many languages?

[Antonella] Well, I think the answer to that question is, as we said, a child needs to hear each language enough. So there is a quantity problem as well as a quality, right and as we said before, but the more languages you put in the equation, the more, meaning the more languages you put in the, you know, child’s day, the less time they spend for each of them. And so it’s not so much that the brain can’t cope with many languages. It’s the fact that you know, if a language is not heard enough, if there aren’t enough opportunities to hear and use that language, then that language can’t be acquired, you know, fully. So that means, if there are three languages, for example, it’s often the case that two languages are ahead, compared to the third. But then if the situation changes, and the third becomes dominant for some reason, or even during holidays or whatever, then the relative competence and proficiency changes. So I think, you know, parents need to be realistic. The same applies to other, you know, areas of society. So teachers, for example, it’s very nice to have the idea that, you know, children can learn a language at school, but they need to hear it. Yes.

[Carine] There are some schools where you have one hour a week. 

[Antonella] Well, most schools actually have one hour a week. So the question is, you know, that’s not enough, so it’s a problem, the problem is creating more opportunities and creating more exposure for a child. It doesn’t have to be all in the classroom. But there have to be other ways. And we’re working with teachers and schools. and, yeah, policymakers, to make sure that that message gets across.

[Carine] Is this the same for adult learners? Is it the same kind of like, is there a point at, we’ve said that, you know, we can acquire languages throughout our lives? But is there a point where, like, can you hit too many languages as an adult? Can that happen?

[Antonella] Again, it’s a matter of time, right? I mean, first of all, adults have typically less time than a child. And so, right, I mean, they have also other ways of learning languages that might, you know, they can make use of shortcuts, for example, you know, they can study the structure of the language, they can understand metalinguistic explanations, but typically, they don’t have a lot of time to spend on languages. So is there a limit to the number of languages that somebody can learn? I mean, as we know, there are people who know many, many languages, keeping all of them to the same level, that is difficult, because it means you know, speaking all of them, and that is clearly, clearly difficult. But again, you know, we should encourage more and more adults to learn languages, without age limits really, because even when you if you are an older adult, is it’s important to learn other languages. Because the brain responds very well to the challenge of learning a new language.

[Carine] I think it’s something that I’ve experienced quite a bit when people learn that I do language research. They’re just like, I’m too old. I just, I just can’t learn a new language. I’m just like, Oh, what? Oh, okay. That’s not true at all, but, and then you try to convince them, and then they’re just a little push back. And they’re just like, Okay, well, if it’s a question of motivation, that’s a whole other story. If you don’t want to sit down and spend the time to learn the language that’s one thing, but you-you’re definitely capable of doing it as long as you put the effort in.

[Antonella] Yes, exactly. And there are languages that are easier than others, you know, when you’re an adult to depending on the languages, you already know, I speak on experience, because I’m learning Chinese at the moment. And I can tell you, it’s more challenging than the other languages I’ve learned.

[Jessica] What’s most challenging about Chinese?

[Antonella] Well, I can’t use any of the languages I know as a point of reference, as an obvious point of reference. Of course, you know, all languages have a, share, you know, something in common, but, but everything I’m learning is fairly new. So a good challenge.

[Carine] Yeah, that was one of the questions that we got. It was asking if it’s easier to learn some languages than others?

[Antonella] For an adult or for a child? You know, so for a young child, you know, there are no difficult languages. We know that, right. I mean, a young child, they were talking about spoken languages. There’s no reason to think, you know, a language is more difficult than another. For an adult, however, I mean, yes, I mean, typologically similar languages tend to be easier than distant languages. But it doesn’t mean that some languages are impossible to learn. They just require, you know, a bit of more effort and commitment, I guess. Yeah.

[Jessica] Yeah. Okay. Well, also, other than, so, we spoke a little bit about contact time with the language and creating opportunities to engage with that language. Are there any other factors that play a role in language learning, and are there ways to make it easier? Other than those?

[Antonella] Well, I think factors that we, we don’t often consider enough are, for example, attitudes. And you know, we go back to the beginning. So, you know, people talk about the benefits of bilingualism, for example, and the fact that, you know, these benefits are found in some cases, but not in others. So why are they not found in all cases? So let’s try, for example, to see if general attitudes play a role. So a child who’s surrounded by negative attitudes about one of their languages. Should we be surprised if they don’t learn them? Or if we don’t see the benefits of bilingualism in those languages? I told you, you know, the idea that Sardinian is ugly. I mean, if a child hears that, you know, how can we expect them to…

[Carine] They get self-conscious.

[Antonella] Yeah, exactly. They don’t enjoy becoming bilingual. They don’t enjoy speaking those languages, and so on. So I think that, you know, there are many different factors that can affect successful bilingualism. And we have to be clear that we don’t fully understand how these factors interact with one another as researchers. So we need much more research, interdisciplinary research that shows how these different factors actually interact with one another. So we have a long way to go.

[Carine] More research questions.

[Jessica] But yeah, it’s interesting. So speaking of attitudes, how do you feel compared to, comparing Italy to the UK? How do you feel about, what are the attitudes? How do people feel about bilingualism in Italy compared to the UK?

[Antonella] Well, in Italy, they certainly, everybody thinks that English is very important. And so English is above everything else, you know, it’s the language. Absolutely. You know, if you learn English, then you’re fine. And that means English at the expense of any other language. That means minority languages like the ones that we’ve already mentioned, dialects, you know, remember that a dialect is a political term more than anything else. So the difference between a language and a dialect is a political difference. It’s not a cognitive difference. You know, bilingualism in a dialect is the same as bilingualism in a language. 

[Carine] That is interesting.

[Antonella] And that’s another message that we’re trying to get across. So, so yes, so bilingualism with English in Italy, like in many other countries, is regarded as number one. But people don’t fully understand that bilingualism should be valued, regardless of the languages. So they should distinguish between instrumental value and general linguistic, cognitive, social value. So in the UK, the problem is the opposite. Everybody speaks English. So as we said before, what’s the point of learning other languages?

[Carine] If you just go somewhere and they can communicate with you.

[Antonella] Well, exactly.

[Carine] All right. Well, that’s everything we have today. Thank you so much for joining us.

[Antonella] Thank you for these interesting question

[Carine] Yeah, if we get any more we can definitely post them to Twitter, we can have you maybe respond somewhere on the internet.

[Antonella] Oh, absolutely. Always available. Thank you! 

[Carine] Thanks for listening! We hoped you enjoyed it and learned some cool things, or at least some thought-provoking information, from our amazing guest Professor Antonella Sorace! If you would like to learn more about Antonella, her research and her work, you can find a link to her website and Bilingualism Matters in the episode description. Our next episode will air on October 15th, where we’ll be talking about sign languages. Stay tuned, stay healthy, and Mata ne! (Japanese: Later!)

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