IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


UCL research project explores evidence for the benefits of language learning

29 May 2019

A UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and UCL Brain Sciences report published today (29 May) aims to shape future research and guide public policy by synthesising evidence on the benefits of language learning.

Students in a phonetics class. Image: UCL Imagestore

This includes evidence on better employment opportunities, more developed analytical skills, and improved memory and empathy.
The British Academy report also shows evidence for a strong positive correlation between additional language-learning and the development of creativity. 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.
The researchers, Professor Bencie Woll (UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences and Fellow of the British Academy) and Professor Li Wei (IOE), 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, Professor Woll and Professor Li 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.

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Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations
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E: rowan.walker@ucl.ac.uk