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Why limited resource models are of limited use, particularly when it comes to languages

14 November 2017 (University of Edinburgh)

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and lifting of travel restrictions, Vienna become a favourite destination for Eastern Europeans keen to buy hitherto unavailable Western goods. My West German friend Wilhelm recalled a conversation with an East German colleague while looking at the frantic markets. “Poor Viennese”, said the East German, “those Eastern Europeans will buy everything and leave them with nothing”. “Lucky Viennese”, answered Wilhelm, “they are doing the business of their lifetime”. Obviously, their comments reflected different economic reality under which they grew up, but they illustrate rather well the general contrast between “limited resource” and “added value” models.

Limited resource models are so seductively simple and intuitively compelling, that they tend to be applied implicitly, without much critical reflection (let alone empirical evidence) to a wide range of economic, social and political debates (e.g. immigration). Their major weakness is that, unlike the added value models, they do not take into account interactions between individual components and the capacity of well-functioning systems to adapt and re-configure. People buying goods are not just depleting a storehouse, they stimulate the production of new goods and development of better products. Immigrants do not just take away existing jobs; by stimulating economic growth, they can in fact create new ones.

When I first met Dina Mehmedbegovic in European Commission Multilingualism Panel in Brussels in September 2016, we were stunned to discover how much our two disciplines, education and cognitive science, have in common in terms of implicit assumptions made in respect to language learning and use. In our first joint publication, in May 2017, we explored the idea of a “healthy linguistic diet” (1), from primary school education to cognitive ageing and dementia prevention (2). In the second one, published this week, we examine systematically three important implicit assumptions underlying current controversies around multilingualism (3).

The first one is the above-mentioned limited resources model, well illustrated by the recent “Guardian” debate about the merits and disadvantages of learning foreign languages (4). One of the most commonly used arguments against teaching foreign languages at schools is that they prevent pupils from learning “more useful” subjects, such as maths (limited resources). No mention is usually made how learning languages can in fact improve the performance in other subjects (added value). These arguments continue across the lifespan: a new social enterprise Lingo Flamingo has a lot of work convincing professional carers that teaching languages to dementia patients is not dangerous and can even improve their cognitive abilities.

The second assumption is the “myth of the mother tongue”, the idea that the “normal” state of human brain, mind and society is to have one clearly defined “mother tongue”; other language can be learned, but are only secondary. Census questions like those used in the UK, allowing each individual to name only one “home language”, perpetrate this misconception. The third one is the belief that the only worthwhile aim of language learning is to reach a “native-like” proficiency. Although the drive to reach high proficiency is well meant, ultimately such attitude prevents people from appreciating multiple benefits of language learning.

As we demonstrate, there is hardly any evidence in favour of these assumptions, either in education or in cognitive and brain sciences; in fact, most of current research contradicts them. However, as we discuss in the paper, these assumptions are closely connected to political ideologies, dictating what is considered to be “normal” for individuals and states. We argue that such underlying, often implicit, beliefs can exert a profound influence on our thinking. Participants, whose performance we are examining as well as the researchers who analyse and interpret the data are human beings, deeply rooted in their languages, cultures, societies and values. We cannot study human performance in isolation from human beliefs and attitudes which influence it. Social and cognitive sciences and humanities are usually treated separately and there is remarkably little exchange of ideas between them. But we believe that we have much to learn from each other. As proposed by the added value models, a synthesis is more than the sum of its parts. The path is long, but we hope to have taken a step in the right direction.

Thomas H Bak, University of Edinburgh, Strand Leader of Strand 6 (Cognition, health & wellbeing) of the AHRC Project, “Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies” (MEITS). Co-Director, Bilingualism Matters (Bilingualism in later life, healthy ageing & dementia).

(1) Healthy Linguistic Diet (MEITS blog, June 2017) 

(2) Healthy Linguistic Diet: The value of linguistic diversity and language learning across the lifespan (Languages, Society and Policy, May2017)

(3) European Journal of Language Policy

(4) Just speaking English won’t get us very far in the world (Guardian,August 2017)

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