The Importance of Language Learning and Maintenance amid Brexit and COVID-19: Evidence from Successful EAL Practice

Post by Mattia Zingaretti, PhD Researcher in Linguistics & English Language, University of Edinburgh

The following thoughts and reflections are based on and inspired by the presentations given by Prof Antonella Sorace, Dr Naomi Flynn and Dr Yvonne Foley at the recent webinar ‘The new normal for languages at home, school and in the community’, co-organised by Bilingualism Matters (BM) and Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT).

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Volunteering with Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh

Post by Miranda Garralda Wong, BM Edinburgh Volunteer

Student societies are an integral part of the university experience because they bring like-minded individuals together and foster a sense of community in what might be considered a foreign, new place for many. It is one of the first things many undergraduate students consider when they arrive, as they attend society fairs and visit stalls lined up from A to Z. I myself have tried out my fair share of societies after going through this exact process. However, it was only much later during the onset of my third year when I found the right group for me.

At the time, Bilingualism Matters’ main headquarters was situated on the ground floor of the Dugald Stewart Building at the University of Edinburgh. I had heard about the research dissemination group in my Linguistics lectures and had walked past the huge printed logo many times on my way to my class. The iconic logo probably did it for me to be honest (good job, marketing and design), but there was still a lot I did not know about BM.

Along with two friends who studied linguistics, I showed an interest in volunteering by sending an email. We were invited in for individual interviews with Christy and Kat, the centre administrator and research and outreach coordinator of BM Edinburgh. To this day I still recall how welcomed I felt during my interview, as I bonded with my interviewers over the nuances of living in a multilingual home. I left the office feeling as though I had finally found the right community, even though it was not exactly a ‘student society’. The sign-up process involved several stages of training and familiarisation with the history and motivations of BM, and soon enough, my friends and I were placed in action – BM’s first Edinburgh Multilingual Stories Festival was to be held at Assembly Roxy in a matter of weeks.

Assembly’s venues are gorgeous, and this one was a 19th century church that had been converted into a three-story space for art, performance and all sorts of events. At the festival, we helped to set up the venue, ushered audiences into their seats for language-related shows and events, eagerly shared BM’s incentives with visitors and admired the building we were in when we had the chance.

I quickly got to know other volunteers during events such as these, meeting PhD students specialising in bilingualism or professors who were going to be teaching me First and Second Language Acquisition in the upcoming year. After getting to know the group, I was invited to branch meetings, where I was introduced to programme directors and respected faculty with whom BM partnered within and outside of Edinburgh. I began to take up more volunteering roles in content production for social media accounts, proofreading and writing blog posts (such as this one that I am writing now), and helping out generally whenever I was available with other departments, such as BM’s upcoming podcast ‘Much Language, Such Speak’. There were informal socials too, which gave us plenty of opportunities to meet with familiar faces within the branch, as well as visiting speakers and researchers who we all wanted to welcome and get to know better.

As I graduate from Edinburgh this summer, I look back on my years with BM with gratitude and many fond memories. I am glad to have been able to find a home outside of home with such a tight-knit and kind group of linguists and language nerds, many of whom would become my mentors and good friends.

Miranda volunteered at Bilingualism Matters for two years, before graduating in 2020 with an undergraduate MA in English Language and Literature from the school of PPLS.

My success story: writing a PhD thesis in a foreign language

Post by Dr Bérengère Digard, University of Edinburgh

I have recently finished my PhD, which involved – as you may know – writing a doctoral thesis. A PhD thesis is no small deed. It definitely falls more in the realms of scientific books than dissertations: it tells an intricate story and tries to make a compelling argument for your findings, covering highly complex ideas in a clear and meaningful way. As you can imagine, few people find this particular part of the PhD easy, especially when you have to write it… in a foreign language.

When I started my PhD, the thesis was one of my biggest fears. English is my 3rd language (in terms of age of acquisition, but 2nd in terms of proficiency), and before the PhD, I could understand everything easily, and speak decently (with a strong French accent). But for the life of me I could not write. I had written an MSc dissertation, but the whole process was excruciating.

When writing in French, I had my own style and tone, fashioned over the years. I’ve always loved using puns alongside unexpected or quaint synonyms. I felt like my writing could reflect my true self. In English… not so much. In writing, unlike speaking, you have all the time in the world to reflect upon your own incompetence. I would start over-thinking everything: “is the right grammatical structure this one or that one? Am I using the right tense? Does this word need a preposition?” When writing in English, I would quickly start feeling helpless, unable to express all my thoughts as they were, limited by the few words I knew. Subject — Verb — Object. The overall style: bland with sprinkles of harrowing dullness. When writing in English, I would feel pretty much like a baboon, a babbling bumbling (band of) baboon(s) (Thumbs up if you got the Minerva McGonagall reference here). As you can imagine this is pretty incompatible with the writing of a PhD thesis.

So, how did I manage this frightening endeavour?

I prepared myself from the start of the PhD, 3 years before the thesis (for a mid-journey check-in, read my #BilingualProblems blogpost on my PhD blog).

1. I read

In French I already had a style, and it could not be exactly translated… which meant that I had the opportunity to start afresh and find a whole new one! I started to feed my language with as many writing styles as I could, and I would devour all the writing I could find.

2. I practiced writing

As it is definitely tricky to find your style when doing only academic writing, I started off with a blog. Writing about anything you actually enjoy eases you into the process, you get carried away and you stop focusing on the grammar. Bonus: eventually I started to enjoy writing in English! Eventually, when I got enough data in my research, I was able to start writing short academic pieces, like abstracts, proposals and papers, to slowly transfer my newly acquired writing skills into academic work.

3. I learned to be proud of my progress

Sure, my writing is still not Tolkien-worthy, and to be fair I don’t believe it will ever be, even in French. Still, the 10-year-old me who could only say textbook sentences such as “Where is Brian? Brian is in the kitchen / Where is my umbrella? It’s behind the door” would be flabbergasted by my current English proficiency. On a smaller scale, I now notice all the grammatical structures and less common words I can use spontaneously, while a couple of years ago I had to actively research them.

And then, when the thesis finally happened:

4. I allowed myself to be of inconsistent quality

On certain days (or when writing about certain results) I was extremely inspired and wrote first drafts so well that they almost didn’t change for the final thesis. Other days (or when writing about other topics) I could not get further than “Subject – Verb – Object”. Well, that’s okay. Ideally all the thesis is of equal quality and style, but the first (and even second) draft does not have to be. On these lower quality days, I just focused on getting words out of the keyboards and ideas onto the screen. When getting back to these sections, by myself or with feedback from my supervisors, I was able to shape them into something better (while not having to start from a blank page, which is always nice).

5. I relied on generous native speakers

Even though I know my new writing style is pretty good, the anxiety of mistakes still crept in near the end of the write-up. Luckily, I was able to count on several native-speaking friends to help me through this last stage. I sent them one chapter each, asking them to point out any sentence that “made sense but didn’t feel right”. They actually found very few of these. I guess I should have been more confident in my own skills.

Thus ends my thesis writing journey, from high school skills to a pretty doctoral thesis. At the very start of my remote viva (lockdown style), the examiners immediately said how beautifully the thesis was written, which is, to me, one of the highest compliments they could have given me. The journey of building a new style and finding in myself the confidence to share my writings was long and sometimes challenging, but achievable! If you are as anxious about your writing as I was, I hope this testimony will help you and motivate you to get out there and share your words. If I could do it, so can you.



Xenophobia, racism, linguistic profiling: the role of language

Post by Eva-Maria Schnelten, PhD student in Linguistics

In February this year, a mother and her 15-year-old child were attacked in the streets of Boston [1]. They were on their way home from dinner, in their own neighbourhood, speaking their home language Spanish.  Two women approached them, beat them, bit them, told them to speak English and go back to their own country. A crime based on xenophobia and racism. According to the attackers, based on fear.

This is not an isolated incident. This is unfortunately an all too common theme in today’s world. Many of you may have encountered uncomfortable, awkward situations based on the languages you speak or the accent you might have. Personally, I have encountered negative attitudes twice in recent years. On my way home one afternoon about two years ago on South Bridge in Edinburgh, when I was on the phone with my grandmother, a rather intoxicated man overheard me speaking German, stopped and screamed in my ear to ‘LEARN ENGLISH!”. On a different occasion, another passer-by overheard me speaking English on the street. After he listened in on me, he accused me of having a ‘suspicious accent’, asked where I was from and said he couldn’t wait for Brexit to happen, so that people like me have to leave the country.

Speaking a foreign language or having an accent often means exposing yourself. People might categorize you, and some may even feel offended by anything they don’t understand and respond with unjustified aggression. These aggressions reveal their instincts quite well. Immediate hostile reactions unmask their incapability to tolerate, accept and respect differences in others. Their attitudes towards you, the languages you speak, stems from their opinion, what they have heard, what they were taught or their own experiences.

Language attitudes are important. Language is weaponized and politicized. Language can be used as a tool for oppression, for exclusion, a tool that determines whether you belong. If you don’t conform, if your accent reveals a different world of foreign sounds, if your melody doesn’t match their rhythm, if your vocabulary bears the slightest trace of unfamiliarity – you stand out. Research (see e.g. Craft et al, 2020 [2] for an overview) has shown that people with foreign accents are less likely to be hired, or to be taken on as tenants. That practice is known as linguistic profiling.

According to Craft et al, every time you adapt your language to accomplish something, such as improving your accent for a better chance on the job market, it can already be described as linguistic discrimination. In his book Born A Crime [3] (I highly recommend it!), Trevor Noah says that “Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. […] My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, Noah learned several languages to blend in. Afrikaans to know the language of the oppressors, Zulu and Xhosa to be able to defend himself in the streets, and his mother made sure he spoke English to provide better opportunities for her son, given the uncertain future at the time. He used the languages he spoke to belong. He utilised languages as an instrument for defense, for a broken, racist, xenophobic system that excluded everyone that is not a part of the ‘tribe’. He wanted to belong. He changed in order to tick the boxes and fit in.

Although bilingualism is the norm for more than half the global population, monolingualism has become the default for many people, particularly in English-speaking countries. Bilingualism is viewed as a threat. Imagine the world if we continue traveling down the road of the two attackers from the incident described above. For just a brief, painful moment, envision a world where we find all people different from us suspicious or threatening. There is so much more that we, that our languages, have in common than what divides us.

In light of recent events, I believe it is now more important than ever to invite other people in. Let’s not use our languages to exclude others. Let’s make use of our language to learn, to speak, to listen and to sing. Different accents and foreign languages can teach us so much about each other. They can open up an entire world that we have yet to discover. We need to see bilingualism as an enrichment, an addition to our cultures. We need to use language as a tool to welcome each other in. Let us celebrate linguistic diversity. Let our languages unite against linguistic discrimination. Because we are better than this.


[2] Craft, J. & Wright, K. & Weissler, R. & Queen, R. (2020). Language and Discrimination: Generating Meaning, Perceiving Identities, and Discriminating Outcomes. Annual Review of Linguistics. 6. 10.1146/annurev-linguistics-011718-011659.


Refugee Week 2020

We had two webinars to mark Refugee Week 2020, exploring and celebrating language diversity, and discussing questions on topics such as home language maintenance, and language and identity. The questions came from the refugee community and from those who attended the webinars. Both webinars were recorded and can now be viewed on YouTube.

Monday 15th June, 2pm – 3pm
Prof Antonella Sorace (University of Edinburgh, Bilingualism Matters) in conversation with Nadin Akta (University of Edinburgh, Syrian Futures Project), hosted by Eva-Maria Schnelten (University of Edinburgh PhD student in Linguistics, Bilingualism Matters volunteer)
Answers to questions that could not be covered during the webinar are available here (pdf).

Friday 19th June, 2pm – 3pm
Dr Katerina Strani (Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, Heriot Watt University) in discussion with Bilingualism Matters volunteers Marianne Azar (University of Edinburgh, MSc In Psychology of Language student) and Maria Dokovova (Queen Margaret University, PhD student in Phonetics)

Thank you to everyone who contributed to these sessions.

World Refugee Day 2020: Reflections on learning a new language

To mark World Refugee Day on Saturday 20th June 2020, we have a guest post by Sudanese refugee Mohammed, who now lives in the UK, reflecting on his experiences learning English as a second language.

As we know our world became like a small village, as a result of the huge leap in communication technologies, especially internet, television, phones, radio and podcasts. This communication leap helped to advance the ways in which we communicate with each other and this made the world seem borderless. This reality in todays show us how its important to learn second language, or as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “The limit of your language mean the limits of your world”.

I was born in Sudan. I grew up speaking Arabic language with Sudanese accent. When I  was undergrad I knew the importance of learning second language, because I found that it may help me to go forward and  improve myself, especially because in my field of study, mechanical engineering, a lot has been written in other languages then Arabic.  Unfortunately, in spite of this, I can’ t do anything at that time.

After I graduated from university I knew more and more about the benefits of learning second language. I knew the language skills can be a significant competitive advantage that set you apart from your monolingual peers. I knew bilinguals have the unique opportunity to communicate with a wider range of people in their personal and professional lives. People who speak more than one language have  been found to have improved memory, enhance concentration as well as display signs of greater creativity and flexibility. Learning second language boosted my confidence by putting myself out there and moving out of my comfort zone. Learning a second language gives me deep knowledge to the other culture, arts, and history of the people associated with that language.

I decided to read books, listen to music and watching movies every single day and improve my vocabulary by practicing five new words every day. According to my experience the process of learning English is not easy, sometimes I feel that I can’t speak English fluently, but it’s normal feeling for person like me. I work hard to keep new English words as much as I can. After a long time, I discovered that the most English words I kept were by wrong pronunciation. This confused me. Sometimes I also speak to someone in English and find myself thinking about what I am going to say in Arabic. This is very annoying to me. So, now am working very hard to speak English fluently, its my goal, because it’s my key for everything.

Multilingual Encounters: Bilingual Performer Marion Geoffray

1.  Who are you and where are you based?

My name is Marion Geoffray, originally from South of France, I’ve been living in the UK for over 10 years. I’m a performer, creative practitioner and the artistic director of “Theatre Sans Accents” a bilingual theatre company based in Edinburgh that promotes language learning through the arts and produces original pieces of theatre by multilingual and multicultural artists living in Scotland.

2.  What languages do you know and use?

I use French and English on a daily basis, can speak Italian, Spanish and have some knowledge of Gaelic and Occitan.

3. Summarise your area of work.

My work both as an artist and a creative practitioner is to widen our linguistic horizon through the use of drama. I work both in school and community settings, encouraging children and adults alike to shift their perspective of language learning from a strict academic assessment based approach to a more playful, sensory and physical experience. By combining my own personal experience of bilingualism and professional theatre training, I developed methods to build confidence, develop vocabulary and improve elocution through drama games.

As a production company, we want to offer a platform for other bilingual artists to express themselves and show their work. The performances we create include diverse cast and creative teams, sometimes several languages and tend to explore and challenge our conceptions of communication in the theatre space.

Scotland is a rich diverse nation that many call home and it is paramount for us to reflect this in our work.

4. The ‘so what?’ question – how can we learn or benefit from your work?

I originally set up Theatre Sans Accents in a bid to create my own work as I felt I was constantly typecast as an actor as “the foreigner”. I wanted to show that I was more than an hybrid accent at a cultural crossroad while also reflecting on this cultural and linguistic hybridity. I see now more and more artists “like me” in the British theatrical landscape but there’s still work to be done. Whenever I run workshops where participants want to learn or practice their linguistic skills through drama and I see them coming out feeling more confident, using even just a couple of words they’ve learnt on the day or with new tools to experience their target language then I know this is working. Likewise when I put on a show and audience members come afterwards to share their own experience and tell me that they could relate to what i was saying or that regardless of the language spoken on stage, they “get it” then it comforts me in the idea that we are all inherently multi-lingual individuals in some ways and that theatre is one of the mediums that allow effective and successful communication between us all. I’m interested in further developing my practice especially from a psychological point of view and explore how bilingual people can “see” and understand the world differently, can be different individuals in different languages. For me, this is an intriguing point of tension between performance and languages.

Find out more about Marion’s work on the Theatre Sans Accents website. And read about the first Edinburgh Multilingual Stories Festival in 2018, which was co-directed by Marion with Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh and other community partners.

A lockdown silver lining? Home languages

By Christy Brewster, BM Edinburgh Centre Adminstrator

As the global coronavirus health crisis goes on, many of us are confined to our homes with children who are unable to attend school. For those of us in multilingual households, this is an opportunity to increase our children’s exposure to their second, third or even fourth languages, boosting their fluency and confidence. As well as children spending more time speaking home languages with their parents and other household members, there are easy ways to further increase exposure in this age of digital technology.

Several online companies are offering their multilingual products for free during the lockdown (Audible has audio books in several languages and MantraLingua has nice range of children’s books for free in the UK until 31st August). Others that have always been free are worth exploring now that there’s more time (Global Storybooks and World Stories are both excellent sites).

A fantastic resource that my own children benefit from is their bored grandparents in lockdown, on the other side of the world in Argentina. They now video chat most days for at least an hour, send audio file bedtime stories and even sometimes watch TV together. Here are a few video chat activities to try with extended family or friends who speak your home languages.

  • Games: there are so many games that can be played on video chats. One of the simplest that is fun for all ages and a good vocabulary builder is called ‘Stop the Bus’ (or Tutti Frutti in Argentina). Players agree on four or five categories like colours, food, countries etc., and then list as many as they can for randomly selected letters.
  • Family tree: this gives the extended family something to research – memories and photos to dig out, and children love hearing stories about their ancestors (even if it is only to laugh at the weird names!). Websites like Ancestry are free with options for language choice and shared access, or keep it simple with one of many free templates available online.
  • Drawing tutorials: there are loads of video drawing tutorials in multiple languages. Just search “how to draw” on YouTube in your home language. As well as all the new vocabulary that can be learned from following the instructions in the video, both sides can pause together and discuss what they’re doing, then compare drawings at the end.
  • Children’s TV: tune into the children’s TV or video channels from other countries, there are loads on YouTube. Argentinian channel PakaPaka is a treasure trove of interesting programmes, from science and history, to animals and cartoons. It’s great content for children to watch and discuss in their home language.

One word of caution is to keep it fun and natural for the children. My idea of requesting little maths problems set by my children’s grandmother seemed perfect in my head, but the kids found it frustrating and refused to connect with her for a couple of days. If something doesn’t work out, move on – the last thing you want to do is disrupt existing bonds by introducing a forced element that has unhappy associations.

In these unusual and often difficult times, multilingual families can at least benefit from the increased exposure to home languages and, with a little luck, might get the added bonus of virtual childminders. It’s also the perfect opportunity to build stronger online connections with extended family and friends around the world who can continue to support the development of children’s home language skills well beyond the lockdown.

We would love to hear suggestions of other activities and strategies that have worked in your homes! Please leave them in the comments or connect with us on our social media platforms. 
Twitter: @bilingmatters
Facebook: bilingmatters

Other sites listing resources to help families with languages during lockdown:
SCILT (Scotland’s National Centre for Languages)
EAL Journal from the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum

A Language Learner’s Guide to Lockdown

By Talia Bagnall

We are living in strange and scary times.  The Covid-19 pandemic has affected every part of the world and every part of our lives, so it’s no wonder that we’re struggling to adjust.  It certainly doesn’t help when celebrities, influencers, or Susan-next-door tells us they’re using the time off to become fluent in Norwegian.  Between working or studying from home, looking after children, checking up on neighbours, searching for loo roll, watching the news, and general worrying, most of us don’t have the time nor the desire to pick up a textbook.

It’s important to know that we don’t have to “use” this time at all – staying at home and looking after our loved ones is enough.  That being said, if you are beginning to get bored of the TV or you’re missing your conversation class, learning a language from home can be a welcome distraction and a fun way to pass the time – no textbook needed.   

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Happy Autism Awareness Week!

By Bérengère Digard, with the support of Sonny and Fergus from AMASE

Autism is a developmental condition, meaning that it is about how the brain and the mind develop, before birth and all the way to adulthood. During this development phase, the autistic brain will sometimes wire things up differently, and compute things differently, to other brains. This is why autistic people experience certain things very differently from non-autistic people: they can have difficulties with social activities, be puzzled by unspoken social rules, and they can also feel things in a unique way. Sounds, smells, touch, movements, can sometimes be felt by people with autism in a way that non-autistic people cannot even imagine!

Because of all of these, parents, practitioners, and teachers, have long been thinking that autism and bilingualism could not work together. If a child already finds communication challenging, why make things even more confusing by adding another language? Unfortunately, for decades, people believed this, but never actually checked whether bilingualism would indeed make things worse for autistic people.

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