Would multilingual people become an endangered species in the UK after Brexit?

With Brexit politics having entered homes and minds, having divided families and neighbourhoods, the benefits of multilingualism deserve some attention. If Brexit happens, then it might become harder for multilingual speakers to enter the UK whether they are clever or not.

ToonsEAWL: Multilingual Kids
ToonsEAWL: Multilingual Kids

Relying solely on British citizens to learn another language to save the nation’s multilingual species, might be too much of a risk. After all, whenever a Brit travels abroad to hone his/her newly acquired foreign language skills, everyone else around them takes the opportunity to practice their English. They don’t stand a chance to learn a second language fluently even if they wanted to. Most of the time they just don’t need to because the rest of the world speaks their language!

What this means for British companies is that access to top multilingual talent could become harder. Why is this important for organisations whether they hire staff or employ consultants who speak more than just one language?

Multilingual people have increased working memory and are better at problem solving

There are plenty of studies that put the superior abilities of multilingual people to the test. The theory is essentially based on the way the brain develops when exposed to different languages in childhood.

A 2010 study in the Review of Educational Research Journal analysed 63 studies on the effects of bilingualism (involving 6022 participants). Some of the conclusions include that being bilingual correlates to increased working memory, better problem solving skills, abstract and symbolic representation skills, and a greater ability to pay attention.

The authors of this study concluded: “Bilinguals may also have enhanced problem-solving skills because of their ability to selectively  attend  to  relevant  information (1) and  disregard  misleading  information and may be able to use this selectivity to succeed at theory-of-mind tasks, which require the ability to attribute the behavior of others to their own distinct beliefs, desires, and intentions.” (2)

Multilingual people have better understanding of other people

A study by psychologists at the University of Chicago and University of California, found that children exposed to other languages were likely to have a better understanding of other people.

The researchers said: “Early language exposure is essential to developing a formal language system, but may not be sufficient for communicating effectively. To understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective. Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective taking. We tested children on a task that required perspective taking to interpret a speaker’s intended meaning. Monolingual children failed to interpret the speaker’s meaning dramatically more often than both bilingual children and children who were exposed to a multilingual environment but were not bilingual themselves.”(3)

What about multilingual people in the UK after Brexit?

Researchers from Washington State University and University of British Columbia, Vancouver concluded in one of their studies on the subject: “As the pace of immigration to developed countries increases, the incidence of bilingualism and multilingualism in these countries will also increase—as will the number of second language learners in public school classrooms… the current analysis suggests they [second language learners] may also bring a number of advantages.”

If immigration does get curbed with or without Brexit, then multilingualism and multiculturalism that comes with it, will probably take a hit in the UK. 


(1)  A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive Correlates of Bilingualism, inReview of Educational Research 80(2):207-245 June 2010, Bamford  &  Mizokawa,  1991;  Bialystok,  1999, 2001a, 2005;  Bialystok & Majumber, 1998; Duncan, 2005; Stephens, 1997

(2)  A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive Correlates of Bilingualism, inReview of Educational Research 80(2):207-245 June 2010, Chan, 2005; Goetz, 2000

(3) The Exposure Advantage, inPsychological Science · May 2015

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