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Research on Multilingualism

Multilingualism and diversity are a reality in many societies in Europe and across the world. Due to globalization and migration, multilingual and intercultural communication has become common practice in business, science and education.

In many countries – Luxembourg is an excellent example for this phenomenon – multilingualism and multiculturalism also form an important part of the nation’s history and identity. Moreover, the traditionally multilingual Luxembourg has a significant proportion of immigrants and border commuters and welcomes a large international community, whose population has a variety of cultural, religious and social backgrounds.

Read on about our reseach on multilingualism and our story ideas:


Multilingualism and Cognitive Skills

with Pascale Engel de Abreu

Being multilingual is a good way of keeping the brain fit: at least this is what Pascale Engel de Abreu, Professor of Psychology at the University of Luxembourg, believes. And she immediately explains why: “We can look upon the brain as being like a muscle that becomes more and more powerful if we train it. Using several languages is the perfect way of exercising the brain and stimulating it to carry out other tasks.” It takes regular training to build up muscle, so being multilingual gives our brains a regular workout.

Wide-ranging contact with languages encourages other application processes

Living in Luxembourg, Pascale Engel de Abreu grew up in a polyglot environment, so she also knows from practical experience exactly what she is talking about in her academic work. After spending a few years in Great Britain, she has devoted the past four years at her “home university” to multilingualism seen from the perspective of cognitive psychology. In other words, she is investigating the ability of humans to take in and process information – from which in turn our so-called executive function skills are derived. These latter skills allow us to act quickly to meet the challenges we are faced with.



What does language have to do with this? “Learning languages is a cognitive skill and applying them is an executive function skill. And in the meantime in psychology we’ve learnt that having wide-ranging contact with languages also encourages other learning and application processes.” Since this sort of wide-ranging contact is a daily reality in Luxembourg, Pascale Engel de Abreu views Luxembourg as a sort of everyday experimental laboratory. However, the fact that also here there is still much to analyse and improve upon is reflected not least in POLILux, her current research project.

Research into the effects of mother-tongue proficiency on learning language

“POLILux aims to find out whether and to what extent targeted mother-tongue development can help Portuguese girls and boys learn languages,” explains Pascale Engel de Abreu. “To do this, we are working with randomly selected pre-school children over a three-year period; we are assuming that mother-tongue proficiency leads to a generally higher level of language competence.” A further result of research into multilingualism concerns the elderly and has already been proven: “People who are multilingual are less prone to suffer from dementia,” states Pascale Engel de Abreu.


Multilingualism is pointing the way to new horizons

with Claudine Kirsch

Languages are living things and should be freely used. Claudine Kirsch leaves us in no doubt about this. The Professor for Language Teaching at the University of Luxembourg views multilingualism as a dynamic process, which needs “spaces” to be able to exploit a full “repertoire”. This process is called Translanguaging, which in short means that a person uses all the language skills they have at their disposal and they do so in such a way as to best fit each particular situation – and this starts already in childhood.

Creative interaction without the pressure to be perfect

“Of course this goes against the earlier principle which upheld that every language had to be spoken with equal competence.” A former teacher, Claudine Kirsch explains this paradigm shift: “Nowadays we know that it’s quite normal for us to communicate better in one language than in another and so we go along with this”. She continues: “Knowing that this is the case takes away the pressure to be perfect and paves the way for interacting courageously and therefore creatively with language – at home, at school but also later on in life”.

“Whenever two children at school or two adults in a meeting speak the same language, as they start working together they soon begin swapping ideas in this language, and then this often leads to better results,” says Claudine Kirsch. Lasting pragmatism has taken root for everything relating to multilingualism which is also because it is seen as a “commonplace” issue. “With new technologies languages have become accessible around the clock, so that anyone can open up new horizons for themselves at any time.”

Translanguaging is a global issue

Technology for Claudine Kirsch is therefore also a key element which she is using to increase multilingual proficiency. Using the iPAD app iTEO tool developed at the University of Luxembourg, children are encouraged to express themselves without fear or coercion. Claudine Kirsch is working on these and similar projects with colleagues from abroad such as Ofelia Garcia from the City University of New York. Both agree that this openness to languages is not just a privilege reserved for multilingual countries such as Luxembourg, Belgium or Switzerland. Nowadays there are diverse multilingual communities everywhere – which is precisely why translanguaging is such a global issue.