MEITS Strand 6 - Multilingualism and cognition: implications for motivation, health and well-being

Recent research linking the ability to speak more than one language to better cognitive performance and delayed onset of dementia brings an exciting dimension to research on multilingualism and a new motivation for language learning. The benefits of multilingualism might even extend to children and adults with cognitive challenges such as autism, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia. We ask:

  • How far are new discoveries in the cognitive science of multilingualism changing attitudes towards learning new languages and towards practising those already acquired?
  • Are the benefits of multilingualism evident across the lifespan? Does learning a language in later life carry the same cognitive benefits found in childhood and youth?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of multilingualism for individuals with atypical cognitive profiles such as autism, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia?

Our methodology will combine quantitative and qualitative approaches. Jointly with S1 and S3, we will explore from a humanities perspective the political, ideological and social factors which impact on attitudes to ML in society. We will demonstrate that a critical understanding of these factors is crucial for the interpretation of recent findings in cognitive neuroscience. Using questionnaires we will investigate attitudes to language learning in general, and to specific languages in particular, in language learners of all ages recruited via S3-6. Our research will also broaden the range of languages analysed in MEITS (e.g. Bengali, Welsh).

The cognitive effects of language learning in late adulthood will be investigated using experimental methodology, building on a successful pilot study at Edinburgh (UoE). Recruitment of participants will be facilitated by Age UK and the University of the Third Age. We will allocate participants to different courses of the same duration and intensity, including either learning languages or non-linguistic skills. To explore effects of linguistic distance and modality we will use spoken and signed languages, and will measure cognitive functions thought to be modulated by multilingualism before and after the intensive learning practice.

For our final research question we will compare bilingual and monolingual children with autism, using established and novel cognitive and social assessments to determine whether bilingual advantages found in typically-developing children are also found in the population with autism. We will collaborate with partners nationally (e.g. Autism Research Centre, Cambridge) and internationally (Belgium, Poland and Spain) so that we can compare individual differences as well as societal contexts. For the older population with MCI and dementia, we will use an adapted version of the language learning programme described above. Alongside our non-HEI partners, we will work with families affected by the conditions. Health workers from over 20 NHS Trusts have already had input into the study design and RQs.

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Recent Submissions

Now showing 1 - 9 of 9
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    Parental Perceptions and Decisions Regarding Maintaining Bilingualism in Autism.
    (Springer Science and Business Media LLC, 2021-01) Howard, Katie; Gibson, Jenny; Katsos, Napoleon; Howard, Katie [0000-0002-5731-6490]
    A growing body of evidence suggests that bilingual exposure does not negatively impact children on the autism spectrum. This study sought to illuminate parents' perceptions and choices regarding maintaining bilingualism in autism. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 16 family members in England and Wales. Data were analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Although parents expressed positive attitudes towards bilingualism, these views were not always congruent with their language practices. Instead, several factors influenced decisions about language maintenance in autism, including the severity of the child's autism, advice received, and the importance of English as the dominant societal language. This article calls for greater support for families in making language decisions that are suitable for the individual child and their family.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    Practitioner Review: Multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders – an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications
    (Wiley, 2016-10-19) Uljarevic, M; Katsos, N; Hudry, K; Gibson, JL; Katsos, Napoleon [0000-0002-4722-674X]; Gibson, Jenny [0000-0002-6172-6265]
    Language and communication skills are essential aspects of child development, which are often disrupted in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Cutting edge research in psycholinguistics suggests that multilingualism has potential to influence social, linguistic and cognitive development. Thus, multilingualism has implications for clinical assessment, diagnostic formulation, intervention and support offered to families. We present a systematic review and synthesis of the effects of multilingualism for children with neurodevelopmental disorders and discuss clinical implications. Methods We conducted systematic searches for studies on multilingualism in neurodevelopmental disorders. Keywords for neurodevelopmental disorders were based on Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition categories as follows; Intellectual Disabilities, Communication Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention‐Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Specific Learning Disorder, Motor Disorders, Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders. We included only studies based on empirical research and published in peer‐reviewed journals. Results Fifty studies met inclusion criteria. Thirty‐nine studies explored multilingualism in Communication Disorders, 10 in ASD and two in Intellectual Disability. No studies on multilingualism in Specific Learning Disorder or Motor Disorders were identified. Studies which found a disadvantage for multilingual children with neurodevelopmental disorders were rare, and there appears little reason to assume that multilingualism has negative effects on various aspects of functioning across a range of conditions. In fact, when considering only those studies which have compared a multilingual group with developmental disorders to a monolingual group with similar disorders, the findings consistently show no adverse effects on language development or other aspects of functioning. In the case of ASD, a positive effect on communication and social functioning has been observed. Conclusions There is little evidence to support the widely held view that multilingual exposure is detrimental to the linguistic or social development of individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. However, we also note that the available pool of studies is small and the number of methodologically high quality studies is relatively low. We discuss implications of multilingualism for clinical management of neurodevelopmental disorders, and discuss possible directions for future research.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    Bilingualism and language similarity modify the neural mechanisms of selective attention.
    (Springer Science and Business Media LLC, 2019-06-03) Olguin, Andrea; Cekic, Mario; Bekinschtein, Tristan A; Katsos, Napoleon; Bozic, Mirjana; Bekinschtein, Tristan A [0000-0001-5501-8628]
    Learning and using multiple languages places major demands on our neurocognitive system, which can impact the way the brain processes information. Here we investigated how early bilingualism influences the neural mechanisms of auditory selective attention, and whether this is further affected by the typological similarity between languages. We tested the neural encoding of continuous attended speech in early balanced bilinguals of typologically similar (Dutch-English) and dissimilar languages (Spanish-English) and compared them to results from English monolinguals we reported earlier. In a dichotic listening paradigm, participants attended to a narrative in their native language while ignoring different types of interference in the other ear. The results revealed that bilingualism modulates the neural mechanisms of selective attention even in the absence of consistent behavioural differences between monolinguals and bilinguals. They also suggested that typological similarity between languages helps fine-tune this modulation, reflecting life-long experiences with resolving competition between more or less similar candidates. The effects were consistent over the time-course of the narrative and suggest that learning a second language at an early age triggers neuroplastic adaptation of the attentional processing system.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    Relations Between Bilingualism and Autistic-Like Traits in a General Population Sample of Primary School Children.
    (Springer Science and Business Media LLC, 2019-06) Kašćelan, Draško; Katsos, Napoleon; Gibson, Jenny L; Kašćelan, Draško [0000-0002-4465-0844]
    Some evidence suggests that bilingualism improves communication and cognitive skills which are often impaired in autism. However, diagnosing autism in bilinguals may suffer a cultural bias, which can affect the investigation of bilingualism and autism. Therefore, the current study investigates relations between autistic-like traits (ALTs) and bilingualism in a general population sample of 394 children (M age = 8;3). Within the high-scoring group on the ALT measure, monolinguals had significantly higher ALT scores than bilinguals. There were no differences between monolinguals and bilinguals in the low-scoring group. Across the whole sample, age and structural language skills accounted for 35% variance in ALTs, while bilingualism had no effect on ALTs. Furthermore, structural language skills explained more variance in ALTs among bilinguals than among monolinguals.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    How does childhood bilingualism and bi-dialectalism affect the interpretation and processing of pragmatic meanings?
    (Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2020) Antoniou, K; Veenstra, A; Kissine, M; Katsos, N; Katsos, Napoleon [0000-0002-4722-674X]
    AbstractRecent research has reported superior socio-communicative skills in bilingual children. We examined the hypothesis of a bilingual pragmatic advantage by testing bilingual, bi-dialectal and monolingual children on the comprehension and processing of various pragmatic meanings: relevance, scalar, contrastive, manner implicatures, novel metaphors and irony. Pragmatic responses were slower than literal responses to control items. Furthermore, children were least accurate with metaphors and irony. Metaphors and irony were also the most difficult to process; for these meanings, pragmatic responses were slower than literal responses to the same critical items. Finally, pragmatic performance positively correlated with working memory. Despite this variation, we found no bilingual or bi-dialectal advantage over monolinguals in pragmatic responses or speed of pragmatic processing. This was also true despite bilinguals’ and bi-dialectals’ lower vocabularies as measured by formal tests. We conclude that bilingual children exhibit monolingual-like pragmatic interpretation, despite their often-reported weaker language knowledge in the target language.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    The school experiences of bilingual children on the autism spectrum: An interpretative phenomenological analysis.
    (Elsevier BV, 2019-04) Howard, Katie B; Katsos, Napoleon; Gibson, Jenny L; Howard, Katie [0000-0002-5731-6490]; Katsos, Napoleon [0000-0002-4722-674X]; Gibson, Jenny [0000-0002-6172-6265]
    BACKGROUND: With growing numbers of bilingual children on the autism spectrum in UK classrooms, the interaction between autism and bilingualism is becoming a pressing issue for practitioners, researchers and families. In this study, we report the school experiences of bilingual, autistic children in the UK through their own voice with focus on five aspects of their school life. METHOD: Using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) as a methodological framework, semi-structured, computer-assisted interviews were conducted with 11 children aged 7 to 14 from across England and Wales. Interviews were carried out in English and took place in mainstream schools or the children's home, depending on their preference. RESULTS: Results indicate that, while children's school experiences vary widely, there were commonalities in this population's identity formation, including being bilingual, and their classroom experiences. Most notably, children educated in more multilingual environments (i.e. in schools with larger multilingual populations) expressed more positive views about multilingualism than those in more monolingual settings. In line with previous studies, limited social circles and classroom anxiety were present in participants' school experiences. IMPLICATIONS: The findings of this paper suggest that giving autistic children from bilingual backgrounds opportunities to explore their linguistic identities in the classroom may enhance their experiences of school. Further research should focus on parents' and practitioners' attitudes and perspectives towards the support available for this population.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    Using interpretative phenomenological analysis in autism research.
    (SAGE Publications, 2019-10) Howard, Katie; Katsos, Napoleon; Gibson, Jenny; Howard, Katie [0000-0002-5731-6490]; Gibson, Jenny [0000-0002-6172-6265]
    Qualitative studies within autism research are gaining prominence, yet there is little evidence about the usefulness of particular qualitative approaches in reflecting the perspectives and experiences of autistic participants. This short report serves to introduce interpretative phenomenological analysis as one among a range of qualitative approaches to autism research. We argue that certain features of interpretative phenomenological analysis, including its commitment to an equality of voice and researcher reflexivity, may help to illuminate the experiences of autistic individuals. The procedures of interpretative phenomenological analysis are presented through the lens of 10 studies into autistic people's experiences, and a case is made for the suitability of this approach within qualitative autism research.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    Listener-adapted speech:Bilinguals adapt in a more sensitive way
    (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2019-06-04) Lorge, I; Katsos, N; Katsos, Napoleon [0000-0002-4722-674X]
    © John Benjamins Publishing Company. While a significant amount of research has focussed on whether bilingualism bestows advantages in cognitive skills, perspective-taking and Theory of Mind, less is known about the effect of bilingualism in communicative tasks where these and related skills may be called for. This study examines bilingual and monolingual adults' communicative skills through their production of two types of listener-adapted speech (LAS): child-directed speech and foreigner-directed speech. 20 monolinguals and 20 bilingual adults were asked to explain a cooking recipe to a child, a non-native adult and a control native adult. Participants adapted their speech for the child and the foreigner compared to the native adult. Furthermore, bilinguals adapted some features of their speech to a greater extent and in a fine-tuned way (wider pitch range addressing the child and vowel hyperarticulation addressing the foreigner). The prevalence of these features in bilingual speech was not correlated with personality or cognitive measures. We discuss possible sources of this difference in speech adaptation and implications for theories of bilingual cognition.
  • ItemAccepted versionOpen Access
    The effect of childhood multilingualism and bilectalism on implicature understanding
    (Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2017) Antoniou, K; Katsos, N; Katsos, Napoleon [0000-0002-4722-674X]
    ABSTRACTThe present study compares the performance of multilingual children speaking Cypriot Greek, Standard Modern Greek, and English (and sometimes an additional language), bilectal children speakers of Cypriot Greek and Standard Modern Greek, and Standard Modern Greek-speaking monolingual children on a task that measures the comprehension of different types of implicature. Despite lower scores in language ability in the target language, multilingual and bilectal children performed at rates comparable to the monolinguals with implicature. Regression analyses indicated a positive correlation between implicature, language proficiency, and age (but not executive control), albeit language ability did not affect implicature within multilinguals. We suggest an interpretation according to which multilingual, bilectal, and monolingual children maintain a comparable level of implicature understanding, but they do so by relying on different resources. Finally, a principal component analysis on different implicature types revealed a single factor of implicature performance. This outcome has implications for pragmatic theory.