Growing Up Multilingual

Post by Miranda Garralda Wong

It’s becoming increasingly common nowadays that children from primary and secondary schools are engaging with and learning to use more than one language. Across the world, policies have been shaped so to encourage the next generation to think outside of the box and  be open to the possibilities of a different linguistic universe, and to therefore be conscious from an early age, of the cross-cultural other.

Whilst volunteering with Bilingualism Matters, I began to understand why. Bilingualism, or multilingualism, is not only cognitively beneficial because of the increased awareness of other linguistic worlds. In fact, research has shown that children who are able to speak more than one language tend to possess advantageous attention-switching skills and be strong communicators, due to their abilities to intuitively shift from one language to another. Bilinguals are also capable of observing other more subtle methods of communication which exist in all languages. For instance, the non-language specific method of reading body language and interpreting a person’s emotions and feelings. It is not to say that monolingual children are at any disadvantage, in fact, as I will expand on my personal experience as a trilingual, being multilingual can be difficult for many reasons. But to be given the abilities and means to become a bilingual should be a choice available to all children, because its benefits are truly life-changing, and understandably useful in the globalised world we live in today.

I myself grew up in a multilingual home. My Mother is Chinese, and she spoke to me in Cantonese. My Father is Spanish, so he spoke to me primarily in Spanish. And I went to an English-speaking international school. Being based in Hong Kong, my school encouraged me to pick up Mandarin too. So all in all, I was writing, reading, speaking and listening to this colourful spectrum of languages, though without ever realising what the term ‘multilingual’ meant, or the fact that I was multilingual.

I’d be walking home with my Father on the streets after school where he could be talking to me in Spanish, but eavesdropping constantly into the conversations of two Cantonese-speaking school girls next to us, then bumping into my English teacher, to whom I address and converse with briefly about our final assignment deadline.

Sometimes, as many other multilinguals experience, the eavesdropping becomes difficult to control. Without consciously realising, I could be focusing too much into the thoughts of others, and forget where I’m going or failing to recall what I was thinking about beforehand. Then, there’s the confused reaction I got sometimes, for sounding perfectly local when speaking Cantonese, and then being pointed out for looking different from native speakers.

It’s not so surprising that I started questioning my identity from the age of 10, or that I struggled to fit in one singular national identity or stereotypical framework. Growing up multilingual had its disadvantages – it was hard to decide who I was, let alone where I wanted to go after high school. Needless to say, for a few years, I became quite introverted. I say now that those years were really important for me to discover where my boundaries were, and observe closely when and where I could say or do certain things that were acceptable in one culture, but not in another.

There was also a phase in teenage-hood when I desperately tried to fit into the group identity of my Cantonese-speaking side. Whether it be with family, friends or strangers, I remember wanting to be liked, and somehow found myself submitting to a more demure, naïve caricature, to maximise their acceptance of my differences.  Only until university did I realise what I had been doing – the saying that language could shape your identity was certainly true, and I felt at that point that for each language I spoke, I had a different identity. Perhaps in some alternate universe I could have become a great actress. But maybe having 4 different roles is enough for now.

As a 21 year old, I can say multilingualism is more than an academic trait. Learning a language requires a kind of determination that can only truly be achieved when you identify with the culture that created it.

If anything, I share my experience to connect with others who feel similarly, and to show others what it meant to me to realise that I was growing up to be multilingual. My experience may be different from others who learn an additional language without being ethnically tied to its culture, but whether a language is learned academically or inevitably due to a child’s multi-cultural upbringing, there is one fact which remains consistently true: The greatest gift of being multilingual is the psychological maturity and personal growth that comes with it. There are moments in life when I realise one thing after another, and it adds up to shape who I am and who I will be as an adult. The realisation that there is a wider world to discover exploded like confetti in my mind and allowed me to see the world through a different lens.

Talk at the British Academy

A recent lecture by Prof Antonella Sorace at the British Academy in London is now available online: Why language learning opens the mind: old prejudices, trendy myths, and new research.

More details are available on the British Academy website.

How daily exposure affects understanding in a second language

Research Summary by Carine Abraham

In our everyday lives, we react and are affected by the events which occur around us. While developing and growing, we not only learn how to act in various situations, such as not falling off the couch or avoiding getting stung by bees, but we also learn what kind of words or phrases, even what language, to use at different times. Researchers have long been looking into what affects our ability to learn a second language. There are now signs that the amount someone uses a second language, and the amount of exposure they have to that language, may actually benefit using both their first and their second language.

Dominance in one particular language for a bilingual is usually thought of in terms of how much better they speak one of their languages. Previously, research found that the difference in a speaker’s strength in the languages they speak can either increase or decrease the amount of time it takes to switch between those languages. For bilinguals switching between languages (whether it’s English to Spanish or Japanese to French), having to ignore or remember information in the correct language for a conversation is constantly occurring.

For a long time, it had been thought that the speed to correctly choose the right word in the right language was linked to the difference in the strength of each language. However, a study from the University of Edinburgh, has shown that there are most likely other factors affecting the speed between switching languages.

In this new study, researchers looked at many aspects of the bilingual experience to see if how “good” a speaker was in a language is the only factor that affects speakers’ switching powers, or if other factors, such as the age they began learning their languages and the amount they use and hear the languages each day, play a hand in this process.

To help answer this question, the researchers created a task where bilingual speakers named different objects, such as a pair of glasses or a river, in either their first or second language, occasionally switching back and forth between the two languages. After testing 83 speakers, who were either high proficiency Italian-English or Italian-Sardinian bilinguals, the researchers found that the strength of the speakers’ languages was not the only factor that affected the speed of the participants to switch between their languages, but both daily use and the age of learning did as well.

While it has been known that the age someone begins to learn a language benefits certain parts of language learning, the finding in this study showing that increased daily use of a second language helps in switching between languages is an exciting discovery. So, if you’re now learning a new language, or trying to brush up on one you already speak, try to use it as much as you can.

Language experience modulates bilingual language control: The effect of proficiency, age of acquisition, and exposure on language switching” by Michela Bonfieni, Holly P. Branigan, Martin J.Pickering & Antonella Sorace

Bilingualism Matters Research Symposium 2019

Saturday 21st September 2019 in Edinburgh, UK


Bilingualism Matters is a research and information centre at the University of Edinburgh, founded and directed by Professor Antonella Sorace. Established in 2008, Bilingualism Matters aims to bridge the gap between research and different sectors of society, enabling people to make informed professional or personal decisions on bilingualism and language learning across the lifespan that are based on facts, rather than prejudice or misconception. We engage with different sectors of society, with the primary aim to benefit the general public. Through this engagement, BM draws inspiration, accesses data and receives feedback to inform ongoing and future academic work, research and teaching.

The model developed by Bilingualism Matters has attracted international interest and collaborations. We now head a growing international network of 26 Bilingualism Matters branches across Europe, the USA and Asia, each with its own unique context and specialist knowledge.

Our Annual Research Symposium aims to provide an opportunity for researchers from across our Bilingualism Matters international network and beyond to come together to share and exchange ideas on any aspect of bilingualism, with a focus on dissemination potential beyond the academic world.

Important Dates

10 May 2019 – Submissions open
31 May 2019 – Submissions close
19 June 2019 – Notification of acceptance
June 2019 – Registration open (£10 students; £30 others; Bilingualism Matters branch members free)
21 September 2019 – Symposium

Call for submissions

Presentations should be for an academic, interdisciplinary audience, avoiding specialist jargon. We are interested in receiving proposals for presentations and posters on any aspect of bilingualism, including, but not limited to:

  • typical and atypical child bilingualism
  • adult language learning and lifetime bilingualism
  • cognitive effects of bilingualism and other types of experience
  • bilingualism and bidialectalism
  • bilingualism and social cognition
  • the neurolinguistics of bilingualism
  • bilingual education
  • bilingualism and policy
  • sociological and social aspects of bilingualism

Our panel of expert reviewers will choose abstracts for 20-minute talks and posters, based on the following criteria:

  1. Rigour of research
  2. Originality of research
  3. Clarity of expression and coherence
  4. Social relevance

Submission Format

  • Abstracts should be max. 300 words in Arial (11 point), excluding tables and references.
  • Additional max. 50 words in same document is required describing how your research is relevant to the needs of the general public, policy makers or professionals (health, education etc.)
  • These should be submitted on one A4 page.
  • Figures, tables, examples and references can be on a second page.
  • Document to be uploaded in pdf format.

Submit anonymous abstracts to Easychair at the following link:

Indicate a preference for oral or poster presentation, and provide up to five keywords. The application will ask for the title, the name(s) of author(s) and their affiliation(s) separately and submissions to the panel will be anonymised.


If you have any questions or require further details please contact us by email:

A very multilingual festival

Bilingualism Matters was a co-organiser of the first Edinburgh Multilingual Stories Festival in December 2018. In the run-up to the festival, throughout October and November, our researchers were visiting schools and community groups with artists in the fields of music, theatre, dance and visual arts, exploring together how to express what languages mean in our lives.

The Festival itself ran over three days, from Friday 30th November to Sunday 2nd December, with a packed programme you can read all about here. Some of the highlights included the three ‘scratch night’ performaces (by musician Roberto Cassani, theatre group led by Daniel Orejon and dancer Farah Saleh); the visual art installation by Elina Karadzhova; the mulitilingual ceilidh and multilingual silent disco; the multilingual book swap; and a whole selection of entertaining, enjoyable and informative workshops and activities on the theme of languages.

Feedback from the Festival was very encouraging, and organisers have been delighted to share the joys and lessons of their experience at events such as the University of Edinburgh Creative Learning Festival, and the SATEAL (Scottish Association for Teaching English as an Additional Language) Conference.

But don’t worry if you missed it! Plans are underway for the next Festival, dependent on funding. In the meantime, you can experience some of the magic in the video above and check out the wonderful Facebook album of photos.

EMSF 2019 Project Team & Partners: Theatre Sans Accents (Marion Geoffray); Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh (Ania Byerly, Katarzyna Przybycien, Christy Brewster & Antonella Sorace); Polish Cultural Festival Association (Lidia Krzynowek)

EMSF 2019 Festival Partners: French Institute for Scotland, The Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Edinburgh,  Edinburgh & Lothians Regional Equality Council (ELREC), Assembly Roxy & The City of Edinburgh Council.

Multilingualism is not a curse

Dr Sadie Ryan from Glasgow University has been busy making headlines with her language research findings in the last few months. Her work has been featured in the Scotsman, “Scots is a language and not ‘slang’ – Alistair Heather” and in the Conversation, “Fitting in: why Polish immigrant children say ‘aye’ to the Glasgow vibe“. It was great to get a preview of her research at our Bilingualism Matters Research Symposium last year and see how it’s taken off since then.

Sadie also produces an interesting and informative podcast series called Accentricity, in which she examines the eccentricities of language and identity. Here are a couple of episodes not to be missed!

Multilingualism is Not a Curse: Part 1
‘Multilingual societies should be regarded as an opportunity, rather than as a set of problems to solve.’ – Antonella Sorace

Having more than one language is good for lots of obvious reasons, but also some which are not so obvious. This is an episode about multilingualism: why it’s a blessing and not a curse.

Multilingualism is Not a Curse: Part 2
‘For me, linguistic diversity is absolutely amazing, and it’s incredibly persistent. Diversity persists, despite the many attempts for us to all just speak one language.’ – Alison Phipps

Why is that despite all of the evidence that using multiple languages is good for you, multilingualism is still sometimes treated with suspicion? In this episode, I examine the concept of verbal hygiene, and how the policing of linguistic borders affects the lives of multilingual speakers in the UK.

You can follow the podcast on social media:
@accentricitypod on Twitter
@accentricitypod on Instagram
@accentricitypod on Facebook

What is the Influence of Bilingualism on Development for Autistic and Non-Autistic Children?

Post by Dr Rachael Davis

Here at the University of Edinburgh, our new research project is underway to find out whether hearing or speaking more than one language influences children’s development, and importantly, whether these effects are different for autistic and non-autistic children.

Why are we doing this research? There are two main reasons. First, although there is general agreement from research that growing up in a bilingual environment does not have a negative influence on skills such as language development (and could even provide an advantage across a range of social and communication areas), there is less clarity around other so-called ‘bilingual advantages’, [Read more…]

From the lab: how artificial grammar systems can help identify speech and language impairments

Dr. Diego Gabriel Krivochen works at the University of Reading on artificial grammars, as part of a group led by Prof. Douglas Saddy. We chatted to him about how they are currently used and how their future development could revolutionise diagnosis of speech and language impairments.

1.      What is an artificial grammar system?

[Read more…]

Learning Foreign Languages (Nearly) Naturally

This article is part of the international bloggers event “Learning foreign languages (nearly) naturally”, organised by the blog ‘Le Français illustré’ (French language illustrated).

As a French creative practitioner based in Scotland for over 20 years and working with children ever since, I can safely say that:
– Constantly juggling between English and French languages, I am bilingual.
– I have a passion for education
– I have an equal passion for sharing my language and culture.
– And I love making things (especially puppets!)

So after qualifying in Childcare and Education, I created my own professional path and set up a bilingual puppet theatre company. The aim: introduce children to my language in the most natural way I could think of – through French talking puppets. [Read more…]

Radio Linguistika interview

Antonella Sorace was interviewed about bilingualism research, Bilingualism Matters and the EU funded project AThEME, by Radio Linguistika on the streaming service of the European Commission. Listen to the full interview: