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More than half of the world’s population already speaks more than one language in everyday life, and growing up with more than one language is the rule rather than the exception in many parts of the world. 

On the other hand, the ever-increasing use of English as the lingua franca, and political, educational and social pressures may undermine multilingualism. In a world which is at once increasingly multilingual and facing the challenges of increased globalisation, understanding the complex nature of multilingualism is vital.  

Much research to date has been undertaken from a single disciplinary viewpoint. We aim, rather, to adopt a holistic, interdisciplinary perspective on multilingualism, bringing in expertise from linguistics, modern languages, education, sociology, psychology and neuroscience. We believe that our understanding of multilingualism today can also be enriched by considering what happened in the past. 

Current research projects

MEITS (Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies)

MEITS is a major interdisciplinary research project, led by Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett, and funded under the AHRC Open World Research Initiative.

Linguistic competence in more than one language – being multilingual – sits at the heart of the study of modern languages and literatures. Through six interlocking research strands the team will investigate how the insights gained from stepping outside a single language, culture and mode of thought are vital to individuals and societies.

Research questions:

  • What is the relationship between the multilingual individual and the multilingual society?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges presented by multilingualism?
  • What is the relationship between multilingualism, diversity and identity?
  • What is the relationship between multilingualism and language learning? 
  • How can we influence attitudes towards multilingualism?
  • How can we re-energise Modern Languages research?

Find out more on the MEITS website.

 MEIS logo


Multilingualism and Multiliteracy: Raising learning outcomes in challenging contexts in primary schools across India

This ESRC-DFID funded project, led by Professor Ianthi Tsimpli, explores how the complex dynamics of social, economic and geographical contexts affect the delivery of quality multilingual education in India

Multilingualism is the norm in India, but educational outcomes among Indian children do not always show the expected advantages in literacy and basic learning skills associated with bilingualism and multilingualism in western societies. Globally, 2014 09 17 09.56.52 2 1the Millennium Development Goals remain unfulfilled and dropout rates (affecting girls more than boys) remain very high. The importance of improving learning outcomes in primary school education in India has been in focus ever since the Right to Education Act (RTE) came into force on 1 April 2010. Much of the research to investigate the issue of low educational outcomes in India has been undertaken by individual disciplines, or with singular objectives, but we aim to bring together expertise from neuroscience, education, psychology and linguistics to obtain a more holistic understanding. 

The project explores how the complex dynamics of social, economic and geographical contexts affect the delivery of quality multilingual education in India. Language inequalities may arise because a large number of children in India are deprived of receiving mother-tongue support, with negative effects on the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Research questions:

  • How does the lack of mother-tongue education impact on learning outcomes and cognitive abilities?
  • How do geographic and socioeconomic factors (such as food deprivation, low sanitation, poverty and migration) contribute to structural inequality in education?
  • Are gender inequalities manifest in the development of basic numeracy?
  • What are the characteristics of teacher qualification and school pedagogies in these challenging contexts?

1800 school children (and their families) of low socio-economic status from the States of Bihar, Delhi and Hyderabad will be involved in the study. Impact is a primary concern, and the team hope to provide policymakers and practitioners with clear guidance on how to improve learning outcomes in the multilingual education context of India. T

Co-Investigators (India): Professor Suvarna Alladi, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Department of Neurology, Bangalore, Karnataka; Professor Minati Panda, Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Social Sciences, New Delhi; Dr Lina Mukhopadhyay, The English & Foreign Languages University, English Language Education, Hyderabad

Co-Investigators (UK): Professor Jeanine Treffers-Daller, University of Reading, Institute of Education; Professor Theodoros Marinis, University of Reading, School of Psychology; Dr Denes Szucs, University of Cambridge, Dept of Psychology

For more information, visit the project website.


Impact and public engagement

Activities organised by the Cambridge Bilingualism Network and Cambridge Research in Community Language Education (CRiCLE Network) bring together academic researchers, teachers, and families to discuss the issues surrounding bilingualism and multilingualism in the light of the latest research. Both groups offer free talks and activities (including events at the University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas and Science Festival) and are engaged with local schools and community groups.
A new open-access journal, Language and Policy, will be launching in May 2017 with the aim of making current research accessible to the general reader.


CRiCLE log web







Speaking more than one language, and having a qualification to show for it, has many advantages, as a group of multilingual GCSE students describes in the short film "Your Languages, Your Future". The film also features University of Cambridge academics who work on languages, and Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who was UK born in Wales to Polish parents. This film is part of the activities of the Cambridge Bilingualism Network, which was set up in 2010 by Cambridge researchers to promote the public understanding of of bilingualism through their work with schools and communities.


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