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Vice-Chancellor speaks of "huge advantages" of bilingualism

last modified Jun 11, 2014 04:52 PM

In an interview published in The Guardian on 2 June, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, spoke of his personal experience of growing up bilingual, and of the important benefits of bilingualism for individuals and for society.

The Vice-Chancellor, whose parents arrived in Britain in the 1940s, spoke Polish at home. He describes how his parents taught him the vital English phrase, "Please can I go to the toilet?" on the evening before he started primary school in Cardiff. From this inauspicious start, Professor Borysiewicz went on to a highly successful career in medical research. He was knighted in 2001 for his contribution to medical education and research, including work towards a vaccine to combat cervical cancer, and became Chief Executive of the UK's Medical Research Council in 2007, and subsequently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 2010.

In the interview he praises the teachers who helped him to learn English and insists that bilingualism offers "huge advantages" both for the individuals concerned and for society as a whole. Speaking of the so-called "heritage languages" spoken by migrants to Britain, he says: "These are real languages: living languages that give people a huge insight into culture and give the children who can speak them additional opportunities.

"Isn't that what education is about – enabling every child to achieve the maximum potential? What I'd love to see is an emphasis that this is an added value that that child has, a talent, and we should aspire to allow other children who may be monolingual to strive to become as bilingual as they possibly can be."

To read the full interview, visit

To hear researchers at Cambridge discuss the benefits of bilingualism, visit the blog Growing up Bilingual by Cambridge PhD student Nikola Vukovic, in which researchers in the Dept. of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit talk about their research in this area.

Cambridge Bilingualism Network

The Bilingualism Network is an initiative by researchers at the University of Cambridge to increase awareness of the benefits of bilingualism and to share current research with teachers, clinicians and other practitioners, and with bilingual families. Their next event, Bilingual Myths, is on Friday 20 June at 3.30 p.m. To find out more about the Bilingualism Network, please visit their website.