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Interview with Antonella Sorace

Antonella Sorace, Professor of  Developmental linguistics at the University of Ediburgh. Her research on bilingualism led to internationally recognized results.

Antonella Sorace is also committed in disseminating the results of research on bilingualism outside the academic world. Let’s see how.

Professor Sorace, you have founded an information center on bilingualism, the Bilingualism Matters, would you like to explain exactly what it is?

Bilingualism Matters is an information service that aims to make accessible and disseminate in the society the results of the linguistic and cognitive research on bilingualism. The increasing number of bilingual and multilingual families in all European countries makes it increasingly necessary to have accurate information about the facts and benefits of bilingualism.

Unfortunately, many prejudices are still rooted, in sharp contrast with the results of research in recent years that show instead that growing with more than one language has a number of benefits, lasting from infancy to old age: bilingual speakers have a better understanding of how language works and a greater mental flexibility, which is manifested not only in languages ​​but in other non-linguistic tasks and behaviors.

The bilingual child seems to be an investment for life. Bilingualism Matters operates on three fronts: the introduction of a second language in early childhood, the maintenance of regional minority languages, and the maintenance of the languages ​​imported by immigration.

We address to all sectors of the society: families, teachers, health workers. administrators, and politicians. We offer seminars, a service via email and a website full of resources. In addition, we are expanding with 'branches' of Bilingualism Matters in different places: one is already operational in Tromsø, Norway, another is opening in the Hebrides, and a third one will open next spring in Greece. We hope to have one in Sardinia soon, too.

 

What are the reasons which parents or other persons dealing with bilingual children are addressing more frequently to your center for?

There are some questions we are frequently asked by families. Many parents are afraid to confuse children with too many languages​​: this is a cause for concern especially if the languages ​​are more than two.

Another frequent question is what to do if the child refuses to speak the minority language at home: this is a fairly usual situation that can occur when the child starts going to school and sees his bilingualism as a factor of 'diversity '. Our advice is to try to continue speaking the language, while accepting that the child can go through a phase in which he prefers to answer in the majority language.

We are often asked if the method 'one parent, one language' (OPOL) is the most effective one, or what to do when one parent does not understand the other language.

We receive many requests for information and advice from teachers, both at kindergarten and primary school level, many teachers host in their classes children from different countries and different languages​​, who initially can say very little in the community language, although language comprehension is greatly improved quickly.

What do you answer to the question on the best method to adopt? Is there a better way than others to raise bilingual children? Are there binding rules?

 No, there is no 'magic method” that guarantees active bilingualism in children, partly because family situations are very different and therefore a method that works well in a family may not work in another.

'One parent, one language' is not the only method: some families only speak the minority language at home, others speak the majority language, but children attend schools in the minority language. Any method is fine if (a) it provides input in both languages ​​and (b) it is not 'forced' and makes feel all the family members at ease.

Speaking of mixing languages ​​(code-switching), modern research does not consider it a negative phenomenon in itself, anymore. What should a parent do when witnessing the mixture of languages ​​of his/her child? Is it right to intervene and to what extent?

The code-switching is not in itself an index of confusion: there are communities in the world in which all bilingual speakers, even adults, alternate languages ​​in everyday conversations, and research has shown that these alternations follow very accurate rules, that are learned by children very soon.

Sometimes children 'borrow' words from the other language because they know them better, or because those words can better express the message.

Finally, there are sociolinguistic rules, also learned in early childhood : bilinguals usually mix languages when speaking to other bilinguals, but don’t mix when speaking to monolinguals, because they know that they would not be understood.

Modern research shows the benefits of bilingualism for our brain. Is it possible, though, to define a priori how many languages ​​simultaneously a child's brain can support?

It is hard to answer this question with a precise figure, because much depends on individual conditions and social and family dynamics. However, children need to hear each language sufficiently and in situations that involve them and motivate them to use that language.

Therefore, the more languages​​ there are, the less input a child will have, even in the hypothetical situation of absolute equality of exposure to each language. If there are more than two languages​​, I think it's important for parents to be realistic and do not expect an equal and parallel development in all languages​​: one of the language is often heard less than the other one, and the child will develop comprehension skills but not production skills in that language. Later on, if the situation and the balance between languages ​​change, the child will be able to become fluent in that language at all levels.

The 'perfect bilingual' does not exist: the circumstances of everyday life determine which language is dominant and which one is passive, and this balance may change several times during their lifetime.

A last curiosity about the accent. When a bilingual child shows a marked accent of the dominant language when speaking the minority language, what would you advise to a parent, if he/she would like to correct the accent?


I would recommend not to correct the accent openly, but to give more input in the minority language to the child and possibly input from various sources and speakers. In many cases, there is a mismatch between the community language, which is heard and spoken in school and elsewhere, and the minority language, which is only heard at home. The child may also use the accent to show his belonging to the community and to the dominant language. Finally, to hear the language spoken by different people seems to be very important (in ways which we don’t fully understand, yet) for various aspects of language development, including accent.
 
I'd like to thank Professor Sorace for her time and her valuable advices and I give her my congratulations for the interesting initiative of
Bilingualism Matters
.

 

 

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