Not only the quantity matters: the importance of quality of input in language development

Sharon Unsworth talks about linguistic input in bilingual development

Post by Michela Bonfieni

Last week, the Linguistic Circle at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS) at the University of Edinburgh hosted a talk by Sharon Unsworth, Associate Professor of Second Language Acquisition at the Radboud University, the Netherlands. Born in Lancashire, Unsworth completed her PhD in Utrecht with a dissertation on the differences between adults and children in language acquisition. Aside from teaching, she is now the head of a research project exploring the cognitive and developmental aspects of multilingualism.

Sharon Unsworth’s research is aimed investigating which factors contribute to the successful acquisition of two or more languages in childhood. In particular, she studies aspects of how children are exposed to the languages they use, how they use these languages, and the influence of the social contexts where these languages are used. In the past years, her research has helped progress the idea that the amount of input that children receive in their languages is important for their language proficiency. Currently, Unsworth is focusing on a new question: apart from quantity, what about the quality of input? [Read more…]

Being bilingual is magical

I was born in England and moved to Pakistan aged 3. I guess I must have started school aged 6 or 7.  In Pakistan I was educated in the national language of Pakistan (Urdu), and speaking the regional language at home (Punjabi). Here I must point out that Punjabi is also the language of the Punjab region of India. The difference in between the Pakistani and Indian Punjabi is that, in Pakistan it is only spoken, where as in India it is a complete language. Almost every child with my background would be  learning to read Arabic (as the Holly Book Quran is In Arabic and is read by many who do not understand the language), often without having any or very little  understanding. Therefore any child with Pakistani background in the UK, would either be speaking Urdu/Punjabi, reading Arabic and speaking, reading and writing English. [Read more…]

Skye is the limit – or, the power of mad ideas

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to you great but scarily mad, something that really excited you but you didn’t dare to share even with your closest friends? Well, that’s how I felt two years ago, when it suddenly crossed my mind that we could test attention in people attending a one-week Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. The idea did not come out of nothing: by then, we had already analysed the data from a study subsequently published in Cognition [1]. There we found that first year students of modern languages and of other humanities (English literature, history etc) performed equally well in a test of attentional switching at the beginning of their studies. However, by the end of the fourth year the language students, by then quite fluent in their chosen language, outperformed their colleagues from other faculties. [Read more…]

Research is not only sitting in front of your computer for hours

I am doing my PhD in Linguistics at Edinburgh. However, I’ve just found myself travelling to a big island in the Mediterranean Sea, meeting people with striking linguistic backgrounds and chatting about my research with enthusiastic listeners. I also happened to eat ravioli with mint and cheese (“culurgiones”), and sweets made of boiled grape (“thiriccas”), and of ricotta and saffron (“pardulas”). If any or all of the above sound appealing to you, here’s how I came to Sardinia to test bilingual speakers of my own language – Italian – and their own – Sardinian.

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

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Sceptics and believers – or, how to find a path through confounding variables in bilingualism research

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Parents often tend to be impressed by their children and I am certainly no exception. Today at the breakfast table my wife asked my 3-year old daughter what is in the spotty bag she was holding in her hands. My daughter’s answer was: “I am not entirely sure”. This made me speechless: not only because of the rather fancy word “entirely”, but also because suddenly I realised that this short sentence expresses something that I have been missing a lot in the recent “bilingualism debate”. [Read more…]

Sharing a language: bonding with some, excluding others?

Mimo CaenepeelDr. Mimo Caenepeel is the founder of Research Communication Scotland, which supports researchers in articulating their ideas clearly and effectively. Having grown up in Belgium, Mimo has lived in the US, Canada and France as well as Scotland. For more information, visit Mimo’s website.

I can get passionate about the advantages of bilingualism — not just the perceived advantages, but also the less-immediately-obvious advantages that are supported by solid research. Being bilingual feels enriching and has never held me back. Hearing ‘foreign languages’ (i.e. languages other than English) in Scotland or other English-speaking countries gives me a small but very real thrill, irrespective of whether I understand what is being said. Is it a good thing to be able to speak more than one language? The answer to that question feels like a no-brainer to me, if only because bilingualism turns out to be good for – amongst other things – the brain. [Read more…]

Bilingualism and cognitive functions in brain diseases: from dementia to stroke

Dr Thomas BakThomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Around 50 years ago, when I was growing up in Cracow (Poland) as a son of a Polish-speaking father and German-speaking mother, my parents decided, after a careful consideration, to prevent me from learning German, fearing that being bilingual could lead to negative consequences for my mental development. There were neither practical nor political reasons for this decision: my father was fluent in German and his father had studied in Vienna, as was usual for educated citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Their decision was also not based on ignorance: as doctors, they had consulted what was the dominant academic view of the time. Psychologists, speech and language therapists as well as teachers were convinced that bilingualism diminishes children’s intelligence, confuses them and may even cause schizophrenia. It was also by no means a view confined to the former Soviet Block: I have met many people from all over the world growing up in the same time, whose parents made the same decision and this for very similar reasons. [Read more…]

Could you tell that I was not native when you first heard me speak?

Hanah Ben NafaThis is a guest post from Hanan Ben Nafa.

Hanan is a 2nd year, PhD candidate in Sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has been in the UK since 2009 when she moved for the purpose of pursuing her studies. The title of her PhD project is: ‘Code-Switching & Social identity construction among Arabic-English bilinguals’. You can read a recent publication by Hanan here

If you’ve ever spent time in Manchester, you’ll probably have noticed those 2 people sitting on the bus or in the cafe speaking some English, then switching to gibberish (or, in my case, Arabic). Well, they (we) are bilinguals: along with around 50% of the world’s population, we can speak more than one language and even switch languages mid-sentence if the context is right.

I’m a 26 year old, late Arabic-English bilingual (I learnt Arabic first, and English later on). As a speaker of Arabic, I’m far from unique in Manchester: Arabic, it turns out, is the second most spoken community language in Central Manchester, second only to Urdu (Multilingual Manchester, 2013). But every bilingual’s journey is different. And although I feel undoubtedly lucky to be bilingual, it also brings its own challenges – especially around identity.  [Read more…]

Learning My Spouse’s Language through My Children

I am a native speaker of American English married to a native speaker of Greek, raising two Swiss-born children in Scotland–we are a multinational, multilingual family!

Because we met almost two decades ago on American soil, my now-husband and I have always spoken English to each other. Visiting Greece frequently and listening to him speak Greek with friends and on the phone regularly gave me a good grasp of pronunciation and some basic phrases to use. So, for example, I could flawlessly order an iced espresso with no milk and no sugar at a café in Athens, or tell my mother-in-law that her lamb was delicious, or defend myself from relentless offers for second or third portions by my father-in-law at the dinner table.

Over the years, I did attend a few Modern Greek courses at whichever university I was currently attending, but I did not particularly enjoy classroom learning for this language. Nor did we attempt to speak Greek at home on a daily basis, as the path of least [conversational] resistance language was English. Perhaps I also took it for granted that Greek would always be there, when I was ready to fully embrace it. [Read more…]

From Spanish learner to volunteer Spanish teacher

I don’t remember when my love for languages first started, but I do remember the various exchange students my family hosted over the years, and I certainly remember when I myself spent a year as an exchange student in Argentina. During that period, I lived with two host families, attended two different high schools, and became absorbed in the country, its people and its culture. After that year in Argentina, I pretty much considered myself bilingual, although looking back I realise how much I still had to learn. My next adventure brought me to Spain, teaching English in multinational corporations, and of course, drastically improving my Spanish to the point where now I really am bilingual!

I arrived in Edinburgh in August 2014 as a Masters student in Developmental Linguistics. The course is fantastic, but I found that I really missed teaching. So when I heard about the Volunteer Language Assistant program in the City of Edinburgh schools, I jumped at the chance to teach Spanish to young people. [Read more…]