Chancellor’s Medal awarded to education and language forerunner

Annette Willemse -- Sat, 10/17/2015 - 12:58

NWU Chancellor’s Medal awarded to education and language forerunner

The prestigious North-West University (NWU) Chancellor’s Medal has been awarded to Dr Anita Denise Worrall, well-known child psychologist, educator and researcher.


Dr Anita Worrall Dr Worrall and Prof Tinie Theron Dr Worral and Prof Linda du Plessis


The award was made during the October graduation ceremony of the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University (NWU Vaal), in Vanderbijlpark, in recognition of the pioneering research she has conducted within the field of bilingualism. It is especially her South African study, published in 1972, which provided the firs empirical evidence of the cognitive advantages of bilingualism which gave way to this recognition. Her work directly impacted scholars to investigate the cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism, as well as describing the conditions for effective bi- and multilingual education. The University also applauds Dr Worrall for her continued efforts to strengthen cognitive education in South African schools and the provision of learning opportunities to children with special educational needs.

A global citizen

Anita Denise Worrall was born in Bucharest, Romania and during her childhood the family emigrated to Canada and settled in Montreal.  She completed high school at the Montreal High School for Girls and registered at McGill University in Montreal, where she completed an Honours BA in Psychology. During this time she was part of the ground-breaking research team on bilingualism and intelligence, led by the world-renowned social psychologist and metalinguistic, Prof Wallace Lambart. She completed a Master’s degree at Cornell University in 1963. The title of her dissertation was: “Some transfer effects of concurrent and consecutive bilingualism.’ After meeting Dennis Worrall – a fellow graduate student from South Africa, the couple relocated to South Africa.

In South Africa she became aware of the enormous potential in the country to do research in bilingualism. Having received a grant from her alma mater – Cornell University, she did research in South Africa, tested and later supported the previously anecdotal accounts of the benefits of early bilingualism in young children, by Ronjat (1913) and Leopold (1949). Dr Worrall identified and studied 30 bilingual children in Pretoria, paired them to unilingual children, both Afrikaans and English speaking, of similar ages, social class and intelligence. Her method differed from Ronjat en Leopold since these researchers based their studies on their own children’s development, raised bilingually in a one parent / one language home environment since birth.

Research with a global impact

Her South African research and its findings were published in 1972 in the Journal of Child Development, entitled: “Bilingualism and Cognitive Development”. This has since become a seminal paper, cited by 391 related academic articles. The core outcome of her research was that bilingualism increases the cognitive understanding of children.

Dr Worrall’s South African study provided the first empirical evidence of the cognitive advantages of bilingualism and her work made a global impact. Dr Worrall is herself multilingual, speaking Romanian, Italian, Spanish, English and Afrikaans.

Children with special educational needs

Because of her experience in the field of cognition and learning – and her work as a member of Project Literacy at Cornell University, she moved her attention to working with children with special educational needs. In 1978 she founded Pro Ed Centre in Cape Town, the first multidisciplinary centre for assessment and therapy for children with learning difficulties.  In 1998 she founded Pro Ed House School in Cape Town, the first private multidisciplinary primary school for children with special educational needs. Both Pro Ed Centre and Pro Ed School continue to this day.  Dr Worrall firmly believes that all learners can learn, flourish and succeed when provided with appropriate and quality education and support, which among others imply that learners need to develop the propensity to apply their own cognitive resources when faced with learning challenges.