Unlocking the Puzzle of Multilingualism

Project child participation leaflet

Post by Tracey Hughes

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to express their views freely and for these views to be heard[1].  This may not sound particularly ground-breaking but, following tradition, adults can often find persuasive reasons for not giving children’s views their due weight.  ‘Child voice’ and child participation is often see as optional and a gift which can be bestowed upon children and young people.  In reality, it is a legal obligation which is the right of the child.  Assumptions are often made that children cannot be consulted regarding their views and experiences because they may be unable to articulate them appropriately.  In other words, in the past, research has tended to be on children, rather than with children.  I recently read an interesting comment regarding this issue, and ways to overcome participation, which concluded that if we cannot communicate effectively with children perhaps we should be questioning our own competence (rather than theirs)[2].

Research on bilingualism often focuses on the use of parental questionnaires, as a proxy for children’s experiences, or makes use of cognitive testing and standardised measures of linguistic ability.  There are many debates out there regarding the quantitative/qualitative divide of research methods and this blog post is not the time nor the place for that.  I am a mixed methods social researcher and I fully embrace statistics and numbers when the time is right, but it is to be noted that the views and lived experiences of children who are bilingual are virtually non-existent in academic literature.

So, this brings me to the point where I can share with you the exciting research project that I am currently working on, ‘Language Place and Identity’, funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.  We seek to find out more about young people’s experiences of bilingualism.  This research is particularly unique, especially in the Scottish context, in that we aim to gather data through qualitative methods (interviews, group work and observations) with young people to find out about the social factors that interact with bilingual development.  We seek to find out children’s lived experiences of bilingualism as competent and active members of society.  So, not only are we going to be doing research with the children themselves and finding out their lived experiences of bilingualism, but we’ll also be bringing concepts and methodologies from the social sciences to the table.

The research will take place in two primary schools, in Scotland, which are known for their high proportions of pupils from multilingual backgrounds.  Children at these schools will not only be observed for extensive periods of time as they go about their school day, but will also be asked to take part in one-to-one interviews and group activities drawing upon arts-based and participatory research methods.  Participatory research methods are those which have been developed to give power to those who can be seen as holding little power.  It is a rights-based perspective which is concerned with breaking down boundaries and power differentials to give the voiceless a space to share their voice.  On the other hand, arts-based methods are what it says on the tin! They are methods which employ some sort of art form as a method.  Through these methods, both participatory and arts-based, we hope to facilitate children to express their views and experiences in a way that they find to be engaging, but also a familiar means of communication, such as drawing, arts and crafts group work, mapping, and role playing.

Playing to the strengths of our interdisciplinary team of researchers based at the University of Edinburgh (Bilingualism Matters and the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships) and the University of the Highlands and Islands (Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Inverness College), we seek to explore the effects of: socio-economic background; social networks and communities; language use at home; schooling and language instruction; and, family dynamics.  Therefore, through the lens of the social sciences we can seek to gain a better understanding of the experiences of children growing up in multilingual environments and the benefits this brings not just for individuals, but wider society.

I joined the Bilingualism Matters office in January, and as I do not come from a psychology or linguistics background, I am learning a lot about the value, and significance, of measuring linguistic ability as well as the benefits of multilingualism.  My particular specialisms lie in sociology and education, with particular interests in the sociology of childhood and education and the use of qualitative (namely participatory) methodologies.  When we adopt the views suggested within the sociology of childhood we can begin to see that children become valued for what they are now – they are valued for their current being, and not what they will become.  Taking children seriously sees their contribution to society as active and creative beings who shape and are shaped by their surroundings – and therefore they are not simply participants, but also contributors.  Children are legitimate human rights holders – as outlined in the UNCRC – and we, adults as duty bearers, have the responsibility to ensure these rights are respected, protected and fulfilled[3].

This research will bring greater methodological and conceptual understandings to the multilingualism puzzle, but will most importantly give children and young people the opportunity to participate and have their voice: listened to; heard; understood; and, be a source of influence[4].

[1] The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/crc.pdf

[2] Tisdall, K. (2015) ‘Participation, Rights and ‘Participatory’ Methods’ In: A. Farrell, S.L. Kagan, K. Tisdall, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Early Childhood ResearchLondon: Sage, pp.73-88.

[3] UNICEF Glossay: Definitions A-Z, https://www.unicef.org/gender/training/content/resources/Glossary.pdf

[4] Lundy,L. (2007) ‘Voice’ is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. British Educational Research Journal, 33 (6), pp. 927-942.

Read more about this project on our dedicated project page.

A’ cumail taic ri cloinn ann am foghlam tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig le mi-rianan cànain. An tèid agaibh air cuideachadh?

Tha pròiseact rannsachaidh ùr a’ dol an-dràsta aig Oilthigh Dhùn Èideann a tha ag amas air goireasan measaidh a chruthachadh a chuidicheas tidsearan agus leasaichean cànain is cainnt (SLTs) ann a bhith a’ tomhas na sgilean cànain aig clann a tha am Foghlam tro Mheadhan na Gàidhlig (FTMG).  ’S e bhith a’ cruthachadh goireasan a bheireas taic do chloinn le mi-rianan cànain ann am FTMG amas fad-ùine a’ phròiseact.

Bu chòir cuimhneachadh nach eil a bhith a’ cleachdadh barrachd is aon chànan le do phàiste ag adhbharachadh mi-rianan le cànan is cainnt.  Ma ’s e ’s gu bheilear a’ measadh no a’ toirt seachad cobhair do phàiste a tha dà-chànanach, tha e cudromach gun tèid sgrùdadh a dhèanamh air, agus spèis a thoirt seachad dhan dà chànan. [Read more…]

Supporting Children with Language Disorders who are in Gaelic-medium Education. Can you help?

A new research project is underway at Edinburgh University, aiming to develop materials for teachers and Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs) to assess the language abilities of children who are in the early stages of Gaelic-medium primary Education (GME).    The long-term goal is to create resources to help support children who have language disorders in GME.

It is important to remember that speaking and using more than one language with your child will not cause speech or language disorders.  If a bilingual child is being assessed or treated for a speech or language disorder, both their languages should be assessed and respected. [Read more…]

Bilingualism Matters Research Symposium 2018

Our 2018 inaugural research symposium aims to provide an opportunity for researchers in Edinburgh and from across our Bilingualism Matters international network 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
02 March 2018              Submissions open
31 March 2018              Submissions close
Early April 2018            Panel meet
Early April 2018            Notification of acceptance
Mid April 2018              Registration open (free to students; £30 others)
01 June 2018                 Symposium (9am to 3.30pm)

Call for submissions
Presentations should be for an academic, interdisciplinary audience, avoiding specialist jargon. We are interested in receiving proposals for presentations 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 
  • bilingual education 
  • the neurolinguistics of bilingualism 
  • bilingualism in policy making 
  • sociological and social aspects of bilingualism

Our panel of expert reviewers will choose abstracts for 15-minute talks and posters, based on the following criteria: 

  1. Rigour of research
  2. Originality of research 
  3. Potential for dissemination through Bilingualism Matters network 

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: https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=bmrs2018

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.

The Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) is an award-winning green business venue in the heart of the city centre, just 10 minutes walk from the Edinburgh Waverley Station. It offers first class conference space within the University with fantastic architecture, history and green space.

If you have any questions or require further details please contact us by email or phone.
Email: bilingualism-matters@ed.ac.uk
Phone: (44) (0)131 650 2884


Research participants needed: Japanese or Spanish native speakers for story continuation study

Hi my name is Carine and I’m a researcher looking for participants to complete a Story continuation study. The study should take less than 60 minutes to complete and you will be compensated £8.  You will complete 3 language tasks, where you will have to read some sentences, or words, and either write short responses or answer questions about them.

To participate you MUST:
– Be a NATIVE speaker of JAPANESE or SPANISH (from Spain)
– Have NOT previously completed a story continuation study
– Be 18 or older
– Have lived in the UK for AT LEAST 3 YEARS
– Have HIGH or FLUENT proficiency of English as a second language (and no ability to speak any other languages)

If you’re interested in completing the study you can sign up at http://blake.ppls.ed.ac.uk/~s1153197/ssu/?exp=SCEN

If you have any questions, you can email us at pragmaticslabedinburgh@gmail.com

University of Edinburgh

Call for Participants: Bilinguals with German as a second language wanted!

Hello! I’m a Ph.D. student researching on the effects of bilingualism when learning any additional languages. I would be very grateful to you if you could help me with my study. If your answer is yes to the following questions, please get in touch with me to take part in my experiment! It consists of a short questionnaire and 3 linguistic tasks (2 in German). As a thank you for your kind contribution, you will be offered good Italian coffee, sweets and the chance to win Amazon vouchers (£25 pounds)

1) Is German your second language? (i.e. you are able to hold a conversation, read magazines, watch movies etc. in German)

2) Did you learn German in one of the following modalities?

a): from your parents because you were brought up in the UK but you used to speak German at home.

b): from the community around you because you spent time in a German-speaking country for work of study.

c): attending a course at school and/or university.

Please contact Francesca D’Angelo:  s1688875@ed.ac.uk

University of Edinburgh

Celebrating International Mother Language Day: Refugee Languages Welcome!


Post by Eva Hanna & Eva-maria Schnelten

Imagine you are forced to leave your country with only what you can carry. You leave extended family, friends, and community behind, not knowing when you will see them again – if ever. You travel a perilous and uncertain journey, stalled along the way in refugee camps, waiting to learn where you and your children will be settled.

Now imagine you arrive in new country with a completely different culture and climate. The locals are mostly warm and welcoming and help you to learn their language. Your children begin school and receive support in learning to speak, read, and write; however, you notice that they are beginning to respond to you in the new language. One day at pick-up, the nursery teacher mentions that it might be better for you to use the school’s language at home. Though you are not very confident in the new language yourself, you want to do the best for your children. But the suggestion still pains you. [Read more…]

Thomas Bak on BBC Scotland Brainwaves

I would say language could be part of a healthy lifestyle exactly like physical exercise and having a healthy balanced diet.

Our co-director Dr Thomas Bak featured this week on the BBC Radio Scotland programme ‘Brainwaves’, discussing attitudes to bilingualism and what science tells us about how it affects our brains. You can listen to the programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09pz108

And also read about his work with social enterprise Lingo Flamingo in a news feature on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-42886423



Video: Language Learning in the USA

Bilingualism Matters was delighted to be involved in the National Languages Networking meeting in Glasgow this week. The meeting was an opportunity for educators from across Scotland to explore how we can develop language teaching in our schools, with a focus on the “1 + 2” approach to language learning here in Scotland (more details on 1 + 2 are available on the SCILT website).

As part of the programme presented by Education Scotland, which included a talk by Bilingualism Matters Director Antonella Sorace on ‘Second language learning: benefits and challenges’, the co-director of our new Bilingualism Matters branch in California, Prof. Judith Kroll, recorded a special presentation on the current context for language learning in the USA. In her presentation, she introduced recent research findings on the benefits of language learning for brain development. The full presentation can be viewed on YouTube.

2017 Media Round Up

Our Director Prof Antonella Sorace and Co-director Dr Thomas Bak were in the media throughout 2017 giving their expert opinions on all things bilingual. Some of the highlights are listed together here.

You can read all about Thomas Bak’s research showing how learning a language can stave off the threat of dementia in The Times from April or October last year, and also in the Swindon Advertiser. Or you could listen to him on this topic in the HearSay radio programme from August.

Thomas was also one of the language experts who responded to a Guardian article in August that had suggested English speakers have no need to learn languages – read all about it here.

At Easter time last year, Antonella received a lot of media coverage, including in the Daily Mail, for her contribution to a Heathrow Airport campaign encouraging children to learn languages. She also contributed to the fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme, Speaking in Smaller Tongues, in July last year.

For those of you with language (or Google Translate) skills, Antonella had articles in major Italian publications, Sette and Repubblica, as well as in the Romanian magazine Contemporanul. You can read a great interview with her in the online publication The Science Newspaper from September, and read her opinion on the importance of minority languages and plans to revive Welsh in an iNews article from December.

Finally, both Antonella and Thomas took to Twitter in August 2017 to answer questions directly from the public in a special one hour Q & A session. Read all the questions and answers on Storify.

Antonella and Thomas at their Twitter Q & A Session in August