Bilingualism Matters Blog

Welcome to the Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh blog section! We invite a wide range of contributors to get involved and stimulate discussion about bilingualism and language learning. As such, not all opinions given here represent the views of Bilingualism Matters.

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:

[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,

[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…]

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…]

Language Loss and Maintenance in Migrant Families

Thomas Bak & Dina Mehmedbegovic

When I first met Dina Mehmedbegovic in September 2016 at the multilingualism panel of the European Commission in Brussels, I was impressed with her energy, expertise and enthusiasm. Since then we have been working together, integrating our respective fields of education and cognitive science. With time, I learned how her family and personal story, including different types of voluntary as well as forced migration, shaped her deep understanding of the psychological, cultural and linguistic challenges facing migrants. I cannot think of a better person to write a language-related blog for International Migrants Day.
Thomas H Bak, Co-Director Bilingualism Matters

‘Don’t speak to me in our language, when you pick me up from school’: Language loss and maintenance in migrant families

By Dina Mehmedbegovic, UCL

Today, 18th December is the UN Day of Migrants. On this day in 1990 UN signed the International Migrant Convention protecting the rights of migrants and their families. It took another 13 years for the Convention to reach the threshold needed for its implementation – acceptance by 20 countries. Its main aim is to protect human rights of currently around 250 million people identified as migrants world-wide. Not many are aware of this date and not many are aware that UNESCO rights of children include a right to education in mother tongue/home language. [Read more…]

Myths and Misconceptions in Multilingualism


Post by Dr Thomas Bak, Co-director of Bilingualism Matters

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and lifting of travel restrictions, Vienna become a favourite destination for Eastern Europeans keen to buy hitherto unavailable Western goods. My West German friend Wilhelm recalled a conversation with an East German colleague while looking at the frantic markets. “Poor Viennese”, said the East German, “those Eastern Europeans will buy everything and leave them with nothing”. “Lucky Viennese”, answered Wilhelm, “they are doing the business of their lifetime”. Obviously, their comments reflected different economic reality under which they grew up, but they illustrate rather well the general contrast between “limited resource” and “added value” models. [Read more…]

Education is much more than just going to school and bilingualism is an important part of it

Post by Thomas H Bak, Co-director of Bilingualism Matters

There is hardly an idea as deeply ingrained and universally shared across academia as the belief in the value of education. Education is a good thing, and the more we can get of it the better. Conversely, lack of education is one of the worst evils. After all, education is our profession, our mission and, to a large extent, our raison d’être.

So it is not surprising that findings suggesting that education can protect against dementia were immediately greeted with enthusiasm. Here we had a tangible proof for the Latin proverb that we are learning not for the school but for life (“non scholae sed vitae discimus”). Admittedly, the results have never been as straight forward as one could wish: in some studies, the education effects were confined to specific circumstances such as rural residence or female gender and the results differed substantially from country to country [Read more…]

What Peppa Pig can teach us about bilingualism (and systematic reviews cannot)

Blog post by Thomas H Bak

Yes, I admit it: I am a great fan of Peppa Pig. Unlike fairy-tales of magic castles and princesses it depicts in an entertaining way real every-day life and teaches useful skills like how to recycle rubbish, how to make peace with your best friend after falling out with her or how to understand the seemingly irrational behaviour of your younger brother. And it is good for languages too: not only is Peppa Pig highly multilingual, available in a large selection of languages. In several episodes, Peppa interacts with people speaking other languages, whether it’s her French friend or the friendly Italians she meets on holidays. I am sure Peppa, like me, would disagree with the recent article by Simon Jenkins in Guardian that for English speakers learning foreign languages is a waste of time (1).

However, a recent Guardian article about Australia pulling off the air Peppa Pig’s “Mister Skinny Legs” episode (2) made me realise how much Peppa Pig is ahead of some parts of the scientific community when it comes to the interpretation of data. [Read more…]

Scots in the Scottish Curriculum

Post by Adam Scott Clark

Scots is a language variety spoken in the Scottish Lowlands and in Northern Ireland. It is generally known in Scotland as Lowland Scots, to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic, and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland, to distinguish it from the variety spoken in Scotland. As it is difficult (likely impossible) to classify a language variety as a ‘language’ in its own right or a ‘dialect’ of another language, there has been some debate over whether Scots is a language or a variety of English. Whether a language variety possesses the status of language or of dialect is very often not a matter of linguistics but rather one of politics – consider for instance Danish and Norwegian, two very closely (and usually mutually intelligible) ‘languages’ that are considered ‘languages’ based on their association with independent and sovereign states and not based on their linguistic characteristics. If we consider Romanian and Moldovan, the issues over what constitutes a ‘language’ or a ‘dialect’ becomes even more apparent.

This post looks at how Scots is used in the Scottish curriculum, regardless of whether it is considered a ‘language’ or a ‘dialect.’ [Read more…]