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Society is becoming increasingly multilingual and more engaged around the globe — yet as many as 80 percent of Americans speak only one language, compared to 50 percent of Europeans over the age of 15 who can converse in a second language.
To help address this issue, two Penn State researchers were recently commissioned to write an essay on the consequences of multilingualism by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ (AAAS) Commission on Language Learning.
Judith Kroll, distinguished professor of psychology, linguistics, and women's studies and former director of the Center for Language Science; and Paola Dussias, professor of Spanish, linguistics and psychology, were among several scholars selected by the commission to examine the benefits of language learning for all age groups. The essays were petitioned in response to a request from the U.S. Congress to conduct the first national study on foreign language learning in over 30 years.
Kroll and Dussias’s essay, “What are the Benefits of Multilingualism to the Personal and Professional Development of Residents of this Country?" is the first to be posted on the commission’s website and dispels many of the criticisms of multilingualism in the U.S.
Kroll said their goal in writing the essay was to make the research conducted in the Center for Language Science more accessible to a wider audience and to facilitate language learning, dispel myths, and change attitudes regarding multilingualism. “There is a perception in this country that English is the only language, and acquiring a second language as an adult is an impossible task,” explained Kroll.
“Likewise, while young children seem to grasp a second language more easily, there is an assumption that introducing a second language too early will produce confusion and delay cognitive development. Even educators and scientists have made assumptions about multilingualism and how it makes educational attainment or conducting research more difficult, but we now know these criticisms are unfounded.”
Instead, recent research indicates multilingualism provides multiple benefits to individuals of all ages. “Young babies are not confused by hearing two or more languages and actually are more open to new learning languages,” Kroll reported. “Adult learners also have the ability to acquire a second language and we’ve observed how multilingualism can reduce the symptoms of dementia in older adults. Multilingualism changes the brain in positive ways across the lifespan.”
Kroll and Dussias were asked to contribute to the commission’s initiative due in part to their research in the Center of Language Science, which was established more than 10 years ago. “I’m often asked how do we conduct multilingualism research from central Pennsylvania, but we owe it to the center’s exceptional international network of interdisciplinary researchers who share an interest in language acquisition and bilingualism.”
Two years ago, the center became the first U.S. chapter of Bilingualism Matters, a Center of Excellence at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. The organization serves as an important bridge between outstanding research on bilingualism and successful applications on the ground for parents, teachers and policy makers.
One of the center’s major initiatives has been “Bilingualism, Mind and Brain,” a five-year project supported by the National Science Foundation's Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE). A new PIRE grant awarded to the center last year will translate recent discoveries about the benefits of bilingualism into educational practice and policy. “The new grant is allowing us to apply our findings to real world situations and examine the consequences of bilingualism on education and health in both younger and older learners,” said Kroll.
The grant will also enable a new partnership, as Kroll and several members of her lab are leaving Penn State in July to join the department of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “The new partnership will allow us to engage a larger Spanish-speaking population,” Kroll explained. “We will use behavioral and neuroscience methods to investigate what enables adult learners acquire a second language successfully, how individuals develop the skill to control their use of the two languages, and the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.”
The Center for Language Arts is based in the College of the Liberal Arts and the College of Health and Human Development and includes affiliated researchers from around the world. Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute also supports this work.