MFL: Does learning a language improve cognitive abilities?
When it was revealed earlier this year that enrollment had plummeted for GCSE Modern Foreign Languages, many teachers reacted with dismay.
Talk to YourOfqual adviser Professor Robert Coe said languages were in a “vicious cycle” of decline that could only be broken by policy change.
“Do we think it is important that young people have this opportunity and are encouraged or pushed to take this opportunity? He asked.
The benefits of learning a language are well known. A quick internet search indicates that it improves problem-solving skills, verbal and spatial abilities, memory, creative thinking, and academic test performance.
The general public also considers learning a language worthwhile. According to a British Council study published in 2020, 62% of adults believe that learning a foreign language sharpens the mind and improves memory.
But is there strong evidence to suggest that learning a language improves cognitive skills?
Li Wei, professor of applied linguistics and dean of the UCL Institute of Education, says the research is not as extensive as many think.
In 2019, Wei, together with Professor Bencie Woll of the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College of Londonpublished an article, Cognitive benefits of language learning: broadening our perspectiveswhich found far more evidence of the link between the cognitive benefits of being bilingual than evidence of the cognitive benefits of language learning.
The limited research that does exist tends to focus on children from different countries learning English. That, Wei says, depends on the political decisions of the government.
“The lack of research in the UK is partly because modern foreign language teaching in this country has never been a priority, so the desire for research has not been strong,” says -he.
“However, it’s like the chicken and the egg; unless we can convince people that this is going to be really beneficial, especially for disadvantaged children, who are struggling with a lot, it will not become a priority. »
Despite the limited research, Wei says what exists “suggests that learning a language improves cognitive skills, including problem solving, attention, and a variety of other skills.”
Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning: The Research
It highlights a few UK-based studies.
The first one, Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?was conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Thomas Bak and others at the University of Edinburgh in 2014. About 853 monolingual people had their cognitive abilities tested in 1947, when they were 11 years old, and then retested in 2008 and 2010 , at the age of 70 and over.
The researchers found that those who had learned languages in school performed significantly better than expected, with the greatest effects on general intelligence and reading.
Another study by Bak, Novelty, challenge and practice: the impact of intensive language learning on attentional functionspublished in 2018, concluded that learning a new language can improve attention and mental alertness after a week of study.
The researchers observed 33 participants, aged 18 to 78, taking a week-long Scottish Gaelic course, and compared them to those also taking week-long courses, but not specifically in one language, and to those who did not attend classes. at all.
At the start of classes, there was no difference in attentional inhibition and switching. In the end, however, a significant improvement in attentional change was observed in the language group at all ages. Half of the language participants were retested nine months after their course – and all those who practiced Gaelic five or more hours a week improved on their baseline performance.
Another study, The influence of second language learning in primary school on the development of first language literacy skills, published by Victoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Oxford, and others in 2015, examined the impact of foreign language teaching on metalinguistic awareness.
Year 3 Anglophone students were divided into three groups. The first group learned Italian for one hour per week for 15 weeks, the second group learned French for the same duration and the third group received no language instruction.
At the end of the 15 weeks, the researchers found that students who had learned Italian and French outperformed their peers in English reading accuracy and different aspects of phonological processing.
They also found that those who had learned Italian outperformed French and control groups on some measures, which the researchers say means that the characteristics of Italian (its seamless mapping of sounds to phonemes, for example) could have a particularly facilitative influence on the development of literacy skills.
The report also points out that there are “many positive influences of foreign language learning on other aspects of educational attainment”.
Wei and Woll conducted a meta-analysis of primary studies testing foreign language learning with outcomes measuring creativity. Data from six studies, involving 502 participants, indicated a strong positive correlation between creative flexibility, fluency, originality and foreign language learning.
The report says there may be a few explanations for this, and highlights a study by Professor Richard Landry in 1974, which found that fourth graders (5th graders) and sixth graders (7th graders) who had learned a second language at school performed better on measures of creativity than their monolingual counterparts. Landry concluded that there was “willingness and adaptability to change” in learning a language, which then facilitated creative development.
Other research links academic achievement to language learning, says Wei: Students have found positive links with learning Englishliteracyand math and science.
Overall, Wei and Woll concluded “bilingual learning is effective not only in promoting learners’ English fluency and literacy skills, but also brings academic benefits in core subjects, such as mathematics and science”.
Is more research needed?
Further research in this area is clearly needed to support small-scale studies – and Wei is currently working on a larger project, which he hopes will reach the same conclusions.
At the OIE, Wei and others assess the benefits of Mandarin Excellence Program (a program designed to help pupils in England learn Mandarin Chinese, from grade 7). The researchers follow 8,000 students, analyze their academic results and their intercultural learning. Of these, 200-300 will have their spatial visual processing skills and other cognitive skills tested.
The results will be published in the next few years, but so far Wei says the anecdotal evidence is positive.
“School data shows that students who learn Mandarin do really well in other school subjects. This is compelling evidence. We have set up a number of experiments to really determine whether specific learning of Chinese characters impacts children’s spatial, visual or processing ability, which obviously requires proper experimental evidence,” he says. .
As research in this area grows, government commitment also increases. Indeed, in January 2022, the Department for Education set a target for 90% of year 10 pupils to take a language at GCSE by 2024.
So, back to our original question: does learning a language improve cognitive skills? Research is limited, but the handful of studies that exist show that, yes, it does.