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Lecture from renowned neuroscientist on the cognitive effects of bilingualism and language learning

A renowned neuroscientist gave a lecture recently at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI on the effects of bilingualism and language learning on brain mechanism and a person’s cognitive abilities.

Dr Thomas Bak from the University of Edinburgh has been involved in several studies on the impact bilingualism can have on the functions of the brain. He has also been involved in research into the effect bilingualism can have on the onset of dementia. In his recent lecture at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, he talked of the cognitive benefits of both bilingualism and learning another language.

He said that attitudes had changed in terms of the way people viewed bilingualism. In the past, before detailed research had been carried out, there were some who thought that bilingualism or learning another language could have a detrimental effect on how children’s cognitive abilities developed at a young age. Today, however, there is a large body of evidence which shows that there are clear cognitive benefits from bilingualism. Dr Bak also spoke of the research recently carried out by one of his students, Maddie Long. 

In her research, Maddie has been looking at the effect of language learning among adults who have taken a Gaelic short course at Sabhal Mòr. At the end of the course, students showed a significant improvement in attention switching and her results suggested that even after a short period of intensive language learning there was an improvement in attentional functions and that all age groups can benefit from this effect. Maddie then returned to retest the students after nine months, and her evidence suggested that there continued to be attentional benefits for those who practised Gaelic for five hours or more a week.

Speaking of her research, Maddie Long said: “My research at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig explores the impact of Gaelic language acquisition on cognitive functions. The results thus far have been fascinating – after a brief intensive course, students have shown significant cognitive improvement in the areas of attention and working memory, likely due to the effort involved in learning such a dynamic and challenging language.”

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s Principal, Professor Boyd Robertson, said: “We were greatly encouraged by Dr Bak’s presentation about the wealth of evidence there is today as to the benefits that flow from bilingualism and about the positive impact that Sabhal Mòr short courses have on the cognitive functions of students who study Gaelic intensively for a week. We know from HMI inspections that students feel that they derive social and psychological benefits from our short courses and we look forward to further proof of the cognitive benefits from the findings of Maddie Long’s continuing research programme.”

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