The big news in Quebec universities is not just about tuition fees. It’s also about top-notch research. This month, ACFAS – l’Association francophone pour le savoir – held its 80th annual scientific congress in Montreal. One of the highlights was a symposium on bilingualism and multilingualism, which asked: What determines the capacity of humans to learn more than one language, and how does this affect brain development?
There was plenty of discussion and debate, especially between two eminent McGill University colleagues. Psychology professor Fred Genesee has spearheaded decades of research on language acquisition, and along the way has challenged several myths. He’s found that a child’s brain is not unilingual but rather bilingual, and thus fully wired to learn two languages at once, coherently and effectively, without confusion. Meanwhile, Karsten Steinhauer, the Canada Research Chair in Neurocognition of Language, has discovered lent his expertise in new technologies such as electroencephalography (yes, it’s a word!) to bust a few myths as well: namely, that only children have the capacity to learn a new language. It turns out that adult brains have similar capacities, but it’s the method of training – specifically, immersion – that determines success.