Bilingualism and the Brain

One of the best things about living in Oxford is having access to the inner workings of one of the world’s most famous universities, although I’m ashamed to say that I don’t take advantage of this privilege very often.

Last week, however, I found the time to attend an interdisciplinary seminar called ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’. The seminar was part of a series called ‘Brain and Mind – from Concrete to Abstract’, the aim of which is to bring together academics from the sciences and the humanities to discuss approaches to a variety of different topics. ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’ took place in the beautiful surroundings of St Hilda’s College (finally: a reason for me to visit!), and involved presentations from five different academics as well as an interdisciplinary discussion panel. The real draw for me was Dr Victoria Murphy: I’ve heard her speak before, and she has done a lot of interesting research into both language acquisition and EAL (English as an Additional Language). More on that another time, though! Here are a few interesting facts I learned during the seminar:

I’m bilingual!

Or thereabouts… In her opening speech, Dr Kerstin Hoge defined a bilingual person as someone ‘who uses more than one language creatively’ (as opposed to someone who knows a range of lexical chunks, but cannot manipulate that language). I had always considered bilingualism to mean native speaker fluency in two languages, but Dr Hoge pointed out that proficiency can wax and wane (I can definitely attest to that!), and the definition of ‘bilingualism’ is the same regardless of when you start learning the second language.

After brain damage, language abilities return at different rates.

Dr Kate Watkins talked about aphasia in bilingual people following strokes. When aphasia occurs, the two languages usually recover at different rates. According to Pitres rule, the more familiar language recovers first. According to Ribot’s Law, the mother tongue recovers first. A more modern theory is that of dynamic recovery: how quickly and how well the language returns depends on a number of factors, including exposure, age of acquisition, proficiency in the language and the language of the environment in which the patient is recovering.

Bilingualism is a global norm.

Dr Themelis Karaminis conducts a lot of research into bilingual babies, and reminded the audience that bilingualism is a global norm, not an exception. I’m feeling a little less special now…

 The UK has a ‘monolingual mindset in a multilingual world’.

Dr Victoria Murphy presented an overview of EAL in UK schools. She told the audience that in 2014, 19% of primary school students and 14% of secondary school students were categorized under ‘EAL’, and these numbers increase every year. Languages in the UK are also unusually diverse: these EAL students speak over 360 different languages between them! Evidence shows that although bilingualism is a distinct advantage, the UK education system does little to support teachers with EAL students in their classroom, and little to promote and encourage bilingualism.


I think I have at least one more post in me about this seminar – mainly on EAL – so I will leave you to ponder those facts for a while. All in all, it was a fantastic seminar and I am very pleased that I made the time to attend.

If you’re in the Oxford area, it’s really worth keeping an eye out for public lectures and seminars. There are loads out there!