The importance of being multilingual
Coetzee-Van Rooy, Susan
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In this lecture I want to focus on the importance of being multilingual. To start with, I will briefly explore the reality that today the majority of people across the world are multilingual. . This phenomenon is driven by globalisation and local responses to it. Two of the important language-related phenomena I want to delve into are the increased focus on linguistic rights and the incredible spread of English as an additional language. I will indicate why I think South Africa is a unique setting for the study of multilingualism in the current global context. In the second section of the lecture, I want to focus on the most important reason for studying multilingualism: that is, the potential such study offers for helping us understand human cognition better. I will briefly share what we know about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and report on the paucity of research on multilingualism and cognitive benefits. In the third section, I argue that South African universities need to prioritise the study of the relationship between multilingualism and cognition. I maintain that a better understanding of this relationship can assist us to re-conceptualise what appropriate academic development and support for multilingual students entail. Ultimately, I believe that the ability of universities to activate multilingualism as a resource lies at the heart of academic development in South Africa. In the fourth section, I briefly explain the two paradigms that form the theoretical foundation of my work. The first paradigm is that of World Englishes. This paradigm affords me valuable conceptual tools to understand and describe how English is used in the multilingual mosaic of the South African society. The second paradigm is the complex-systems approach that I started to explore only recently. One of the most prominent features of the complex-systems approach is its ability to conceptually integrate variability, heterogeneity and unpredictability. I hope to show that this approach is ideal for a study of multilingualism and cognition in higher education. In the fifth section, I report the findings of an empirical project in which I used a World Englishes and complex-systems approach to initiate research about the multilingualism of the students on our campus. In the concluding section I would like to reflect on the potential usefulness of a combined World Englishes and complex-systems approach for the study of multilingualism and cognition in higher education. I also want to share a future research agenda for studies of multilingualism and cognition grounded in these two paradigms.