Issue date: 06 April 2001

The importance of the English language as an international medium of communication is undisputed. Recent figures show that English is the mother tongue of around 400 million people in the world - and is the official language of another 400 million. In addition, between a quarter and a third of the world's population already use it, and more than 85 per cent of international organisations use English as one of their working languages.

But what is the impact on individuals who are able to speak two or even three languages? And what are the likely implications for the maintenance of minority languages while English - or Spanish, or Chinese - become languages with world status? These are some of the issues being explored at a three-day international symposium on bilingualism, being held in April at the University of the West of England.

"It is one of the most important conferences on this topic in the world," commented Jeanine Treffers-Daller, "and is attracting over 300 delegates from all around the globe."

Jeanine, who herself speaks Dutch, German and English, is particularly interested in code-switching, or how people switch from one language to another. The meeting will look at psycholinguistics - how people with two or more languages retrieve words, or process language, and how they represent the two languages in their minds - as well as sociolinguistics: how and why speakers use more than one language in their everyday lives.

"It is rare to be equally fluent in two or more languages," she says. "More often, one language is used for one purpose, such as at work or school, while a second language is used at home. In each language people will have specific areas of competence which usually complement each other."

Delegates from 42 different countries are expected, including representatives from China, South Africa, Trinidad and Jamaica, who have been enabled to attend by a travel fund for delegates from the developing world. Of the 5 - 6,000 languages currently in use in the world today, it is estimated that one is dying out each week. By the end of the 21st century, 90% of these languages may have ceased to exist.

However, one session on a minority language - Welsh - will show that intervention can prevent a language from dying out. By promoting it in schools, and setting up a dedicated TV channel, the market value of the language has been increased. It is now seen as not just a hobby, but as useful in commerce, education and the modern world.

The symposium will also consider language attrition - how people lose a language they knew as a child, if they move to a different country. Motivation and the efforts of the parents have a significant impact, as a survey of families living in Bristol with one parent who was either German and Dutch revealed.

Keynote speaker Ton Dijkstra will also examine computer developments aimed at simulating the hugely complex task the brain handles when translating from one language to another.

Editor's notes
1.The Third International Symposium on Bilingualism is organised by the Faculty of Languages and European Studies, and will take place from 18 - 20 April 2001, at the University of the West of England's Frenchay campus. For further information, contact Jeanine Treffers-Daller, tel no. 0117 344 2390; email or visit the symposium website on:

2. This year has been declared the European Year of Languages by the Council of Europe. Its aims are:
* to celebrate and promote linguistic diversity
* to motivate the widest possible number of people to learn languages
* to encourage and support the lifelong learning of languages

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