Exploring the bilingual brain: An interview with Professor Wei Li MAE#

In this interview, Professor Wei Li discusses his groundbreaking research on bilingual brain development, and the significant benefits of language exposure in both childhood and later life.

Professor Wei Li
Professor Wei Li

About Wei Li#

Professor Wei Li MAE is renowned for his significant contributions to the field of Applied Linguistics, particularly in the study of bilingualism and multilingualism. Throughout his career, Li Wei has held various leadership roles, first at Newcastle University and later as Chair of Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck, University of London, before being appointed Chair of Applied Linguistics at University College London’s Institute of Education. He has been elected to several esteemed academies, including the British Academy, Academy of Social Sciences, the Royal Society of Arts, and Academia Europaea.

As Director and Dean of the UCL Institute of Education, Wei Li provides strategic leadership to advance the institution’s educational and research endeavours. His research interests span a broad range of topics, from the cognitive implications of childhood bilingualism to language education policy and practice. Wei Li’s research has significantly contributed to our understanding of linguistic diversity and its implications for education and society.

Professor Wei Li was elected as member of the Linguistic Studies section of Academia Europaea in 2021.

Read the interview#

Your research interests span bilingualism, multilingualism, and the cognitive benefits of childhood bilingualism. What inspired you to pursue these areas of study? Were you raised bilingual?

My interest in bilingualism, and particularly in childhood bilingualism, was due to my own childhood experience. I’m from a Manchu heritage family in Beijing, China. Manchu was once a dominant group in the sense that it was the ruling ethnic group of the Qing dynasty. It has its own language and writing system. In theory, I should be bilingual in Manchu and Chinese, but I’m not, and I’ve never had the opportunity to acquire the Manchu language. That loss of one’s heritage language really triggered my interests in bilingualism, language contact and issues to do with ethnic and linguistic diversity. In the UK, some ethnic groups maintain their heritage languages and others lose theirs. I was intrigued by the phenomena of language maintenance and language shift (LMLS), as it is technically known, across generations when I moved to the UK in the 1980s. I immediately noticed hundreds of ethnic minority community members in the UK having similar experiences to myself and my family, just in a different context. But these communities had also made a concerted effort to transmit their heritage languages to British-born generations, through complementary schools, for example. That’s when I started looking seriously at childhood bilingualism, language maintenance and language shift, and family language policy.

In the 1990s, people had a raised awareness of the importance of bilingualism and linguistic diversity, not just for themselves, but also for British society as a whole. Gradually, I looked at different aspects of language acquisition and disorders of multilingual children, the cognitive benefits of childhood bilingualism, the cognitive benefits of learning additional languages through school and later in life, and education issues to do with bilingual learners.

You’re currently investigating the impact of early exposure to two languages on brain structures in childhood bilingualism. How does being bilingual affect a child’s brain?

There is no simple, straightforward answer, and that’s precisely why we are doing research on it. Broadly speaking, we know that the human brain changes its structure and function over time. We didn’t know much about it 30 years ago with the limited technology available, but now we have a much better understanding that the brain does change overtime, including its structure. The changes are not simply physical, in the sense that the brain matures as one grows up. The way we use the brain – to process information and to direct our actions – can change the brain’s structure and functions.

We have evidence to show that in bilingual adults, the brain functions differently from a monolingual adult’s brain. There are different kinds of connectivity, and a bilingual brain processes information differently from a monolingual brain. The functionalities of the brain, such as memory and attention, are also different between the two.

I am particularly interested in how early exposure to different languages, in infancy and childhood, may affect the brain structures and functions. Currently I am working on one of the first empirical experimental studies of its kind, using advanced neuroimaging technologies. The project is Leverhulm-funded and a collaborative project between the Institute of Education and the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, both at UCL.

We are looking at two groups of pre-pubescent children between 8 and 10, and a monolingual control group. One group had early exposure to two languages, Greek and English, from birth. Another group was exposed to just one of the languages from birth, and another language around the age of 3. In short, one group is ‘simultaneous bilingual’ (bilingual from birth), the other is ‘sequential bilingual’ (a first language, followed by a second). We’re looking at their brain structures and functions when they are at pre-teenage years to see how the different kinds of early exposure impacted on their brain structure functions over time, and also compare them to monolingual controls.

We are in the process of analysing the findings. There are very interesting differences in connectivity.

How does bilingualism impact educational outcomes, both positively and negatively?

We have a substantial amount of scientific evidence that being bilingual and using different languages in everyday life has a range of cognitive benefits. The benefits include enhanced memory, attention and the ability to multitask. So in theory, bilingualism should bring lots of positive benefits in terms of educational outcomes.

However, that’s not always what we hear from teachers and schools, especially regarding minoritised ethnic children who are bilingual. Unfortunately, they tend to suffer from social and educational disadvantages. It’s not an educational or cognitive issue, it’s more of a social issue. We quite often hear people say bilingualism is an important social and linguistic resource. Schools and the education systems need to find ways of creating opportunities to maximise the potential of bilingual learners, and to combat the social inequality and injustice that exist in society.

How do you view the role of technology, such as language learning apps, in supporting children who are being raised bilingually?

“The simple answer is to use it wisely, but of course that’s easier said than done.

There is a whole range of technologies and apps available. From early childhood, people can use an iPad to help with bedtime reading. In a study on the language policy within minority and immigrant families, we found that the more traditional bedtime story and joint reading activities are being reduced and replaced by giving an iPad to the child, which they can use to read themselves. They can even hear words being read with the touch of a key. Using technology wisely and effectively increases the opportunities of being exposed to different languages.

Meanwhile, schools are getting better at using technologies for language teaching. I feel we are always a step behind, trying to catch up with new ways of using technology to enhance teaching and learning. There is no doubt that technology is going to play an increasingly important role in language learning, and we must find creative ways of embedding it in language education.

Are there any significant differences between being bilingual from birth versus learning a second language as an adult? What are the benefits of learning languages later in life?

In the vast majority of cases, barring disability, all of us are successful language learners. We can speak our mother tongue, our first language, very well. It’s quite different when it comes to instructed second language learning in schools. People find it hard to learn an additional language in the school context, and the classroom environment can make the process a lot more difficult.

In theory, learning a second language should not be that fundamentally different from learning any other language. The question is, how can we make good use of what we already know through the learning of our first language. This should really be explored more actively in both research and practice. What are the barriers that are unique to second language learning within the classroom context that cause problems, and how do we then overcome them?

It’s not necessarily the cognitive process that is the problem, as there are universal mechanisms of language learning that we all make use of. It is the environment and quite often the pedagogy, and that is why we need to develop and innovate pedagogical practices to support a successful second language.

The benefits of learning languages later in life are indisputable. Language learning is the best exercise you can give your brain. The UK’s NHS dementia website used to advise people to engage in physical activities. Now it also recognises the importance of regular mental activities, including learning a language. It is also a very good social activity, as learning a language involves interacting with other people. I think adults should make this a regular activity.

What advice would you give to parents, educators, or policymakers regarding the support and promotion of bilingualism in society?

There is no doubt that bilingualism and multilingualism are a key resource, not only for individuals, but for society as a whole. The challenge for us all is to make positive use of that resource. There’s no easy path, so we need to be resilient. We need to hear more stories from bilingual people, especially young people, and their experiences with languages. We also need to improve policy and practices that encourage and promote bilingualism and multilingualism.

The UK in particular hasn’t got an impressive track record in promoting its own linguistic diversity and language education through schools. We have Welsh and Gaelic speaking communities, and there are initiatives to revive these languages and bring up a new generation of Welsh and Gaelic speakers. We also have a large number of ethnic minority languages in our minority communities, and we need to find ways of building up that capacity. Don’t forget what we consider as minority languages are majority languages somewhere else in the world, and learning these languages will enhance the UK’s multilingual capacity on the global stage.

We talk about Global Britain, and that vision absolutely needs multilingual capacity. The Department for Education’s initiative is being led by the UCL Institute of Education, the National Consortium for Languages Education, and is aimed not only at promoting innovative pedagogies for language education in secondary schools in England, but also finding new ways of supporting Home, Heritage and Community Languages (HHCL). It’s part of the Languages Hub scheme and it’s a great national initiative.

We have to learn from the devolved UK nations as well. We need to learn the ways that Wales has supported its bilingualism. We need to learn about the various initiatives in Scotland supporting their languages. I have no doubt of the multilingual potential of the nation. We just need to develop innovative ways of promoting language education in our schools, in our communities, and in our institutional structures.

The interview was posted on the 17th April 2024 and conducted by the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub.
For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk.

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