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Food for Thought on Multilingualism

vrijdag, 28 september, 2018 - 12:00
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
R&D department
02/629 22 11
Food for Thought - Interdisciplinary lunch for VUB- & UZ-researchers

Registrations via this page are now closed, please contact jane.verlinden@vub.be if you wish to join our table.


  • Prof. dr. Rik Vosters (Linguistics and Literary Studies): 
    Towards a center of expertise on multilingualism at VUB / Naar een expertisecentrum rond meertaligheid aan de VUB
  • Prof. dr. Esli Struys (Linguistics and Literary Studies):
    Meertaligheid en het brein / Multilingualism and the brain


Multilingualism is a central challenge in today’s society: all across Europe, changing patterns of migration and new ways of communication have brought people in contact with a wide array of languages, demanding communication across linguistic and often cultural borders. Multilingualism is even more deeply embedded in the urban context of Brussels, where well over one hundred languages are spoken on a daily basis, and where the institutional context of Dutch-French bilingualism does not even come close to capturing the actual linguistic diversity present in the city. More and more people acquire a window into other cultures and ways of life through foreign languages, and the social and cognitive benefits for children raised in a multilingual context from an early age onwards are numerous. Nonetheless, multilingualism also provides us with a set of new challenges, including how to engage minority language speakers in public life while avoiding cultural and linguistic assimilation, how to integrate linguistic diversity in educational curricula, how to organize translation and interpreting services in the most efficient way, how to improve communication in a multilingual workplace, or how to safeguard the position of Dutch in a hyperdiverse city such as Brussels.

Multilingualism is also an important topic for higher education itself, and for Vrije Universiteit Brussel in particular. Home language is a key predictor of academic success, and with an ever more heterogeneous student population, universities need to develop policies to deal with the diverse language backgrounds of their students: avoiding the pitfalls of elitist selection at the gate mechanisms, but empowering students to develop their linguistic skills in an academic context, also beyond the languages of instruction. Moreover, the development of English-language and multilingual programs (such as the highly successful Multilingual Master in Linguistics and Literary Studies) can play a key role in the internationalization strategy of the university, and of higher education in general, attracting a linguistically more diverse population, yet the position of English-language programs is an issue of concern for many actors in the public debate, fearing domain loss for Dutch as the main language of higher education.

Not surprisingly, multilingualism is a widely researched topic, receiving multidisciplinary attention: not only from within the traditional fields of focus, such as linguistics, literary studies, interpreting and translation studies, but also from sociology, economics, communication science, political science, history, law, psychology, neuroscience, computer science, and educational research, to name just a few. Multilingualism is furthermore studied from a variety of angles, including social (e.g. issues of language loss, language policy and minority languages), cognitive (e.g. the so-called bilingual advantages of early multilinguals on a variety of cognitive tasks), organizational (e.g. studying the organizational aspects of multilingual workplaces) and educational approaches (e.g. the advantages of multilingual education). At VUB specifically, multilingualism has long figured high on the research agenda of a variety of research groups, and the university has built a strong set of expertise in various relevant domains, across various departments and faculties.

The aim of this Food for Thought is to bring together experts working on aspects of multilingualism from their own background or expertise, and discuss the possibility of gathering, recognizing and expanding the wide VUB expertise regarding multilingualism by establishing a center of expertise on the topic, in the form of the Brussels Center for Multilingualism (BCMU). Bundling the expertise that is now scattered across departments and across faculties will allow us to take up a leadership role in Belgium and establish ownership of a topic that is central to the mission and the DNA of VUB. The ultimate goal of such a Brussels Center for Multilingualism is thus to establish a leading and widely recognized center of multidisciplinary expertise, combining a strong local embedding in the Brussels context with a solid international network across disciplines.