Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Natural Translation has lost a friend

Wallace Lambert, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, died last week. The news reached Valencia on Sunday and has left me feeling very sad. He was 86, but he was still active and his death from pneumonia came as a surprise. He had been a friend for many years and was on the consultative committee for the conference that will be held in Spain this coming November to mark my 80th birthday. Indeed he had many friends, because he was a very warm-hearted man with a wry sense of humour and a sharp, open mind.

If you are into research on bilingualism, you will already know something about his groundbreaking work but perhaps not about his background. He was an American of Canadian lineage, with a French wife. Consequently his children grew up as balanced bilinguals from infancy and by education. McGill University, where he taught for decades, was an English-speaking university in the midst of a city and a region where the majority spoke French – circumstances that inspired his interest in bilingualism and provided a fertile setting for pursuing it.

His controlled study with Elizabeth Peal published in 1962, ‘The relation of bilingualism to intelligence’, was a milestone in research into the cognitive effects of knowing two languages, because it challenged earlier studies claiming that the acquiring of two languages resulted in cognitive defects. They found no such shortcomings. On the contrary, French/English bilinguals in Montreal scored ahead of monolinguals in both verbal and nonverbal measures of intelligence. Bilinguals had a more “diversified structure of intelligence.” Bilingual children showed “greater cognitive flexibility”: they recognized the arbitrariness of words and their referents. These findings were confirmed by later research in several other countries besides Canada and had an impact on education policies.

He recognized the importance of translating and interpreting as bilingual activities, and so I came to know him when he early on took an interest in Natural Translation. By coincidence, he was one of the leading speakers at the same 1977 symposium in Venice at which ‘Translation as an innate skill’ (see August 15 posting on this blog) was first presented as a conference paper. Soon afterwards he invited me to take part in his weekly seminar for his graduate students at McGill, which was a great encouragement to me.

He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.



E. Peal and W. E. Lambert. The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs, 76:27.1-23, 1962. There is a good summary at

W. E. Lambert. Psychological Approaches to Bilingualism, Translation and Interpretation. In D. Gerver and H. W. Sinaiko (eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication, New York and London, Plenum Press, 1978, pp. 131-143.

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