IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


No harm to cognitive and linguistic development for second language learners

3 December 2021

Multilingual acquisition is not detrimental for cognitive and linguistic development, a research project from UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and Anglia Ruskin University has found.

Father talking to baby

The team of researchers, who have been studying the effects of multilingual acquisition of cognitive development for more than 10 years, have recently published a series of scientific articles that contributed to the understanding of how multilingual experience can shape the mind.

It is estimated that at least half of the world’s population is multilingual, yet the impact of second language learning on cognitive development remains an area of intense debate among researchers. The issue of whether or not the process of becoming multilingual directly drives general advantages in cognitive abilities is important to resolve because it has potentially substantial implications for education, health and quality of life.

Dr Roberto Filippi, Director of the Multilanguage and Cognition lab at IOE, said: “Our research has been heavily inspired by historical debates among philosophers, linguists, psychologists and educators in which second language acquisition, especially in children, was considered detrimental for cognitive development, an idea that unfortunately has paved its way into today’s thinking that multilingual learners have "special needs".

“Our work shows unequivocally that multilingual acquisition is not detrimental for cognitive and linguistic development and therefore provides a foundation for education practitioners and policy makers to make informed decisions on the importance of second language learning in childhood and in lifelong education.”

Professor Peter Bright, who directs the Centre for Mind and Behaviour at Anglia Ruskin University said: “Our research team has been the first to apply a developmental method of investigation embracing the whole lifespan to the study of multilingualism. We use a convergence of experimental methods including behavioural tasks, neuroimaging, eye-tracking and computational modelling. By using brain imaging of large, well-matched samples of multilingual and monolingual speakers, we have provided new and robust evidence about how a multilinguistic experience can change brain structure and function. A better understanding of functional anatomy is particularly important for rehabilitation therapies following brain damage.”

Dr Filippi added: “In my professional contacts with parents, I frequently find educators who discourage multilingual families to raise their children as multilinguals because ‘two languages in a single mind will delay their "normal" cognitive and language development’. This is why we are organising knowledge exchange events in which we engage with parents and education practitioners. 

“Our research has significantly contributed to dissipate this misleading belief. In particular, the evidence that we provided has shown that multilingualism may be particularly beneficial within the disadvantaged population: our recent work has shown that low socio-economic status bilingual speakers outperform monolingual peers in crucial executive function skills. This evidence is vital to promote second language learning in the more deprived areas of our societies in which the pandemic has impacted on disadvantaged pupils."

The research team is now conducting new projects with primary and secondary schools in the UK and abroad and establishing collaboration with education practitioners operating in schools with large numbers of multilingual pupils.



Photo by William Fortunato from Pexels.