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.

Our World Is Colourful! A language celebration kindergarten project

Post by Eva-maria Schnelten

St. Agnes Kindergarten in my hometown of Lastrup, Germany, embarked on a 7- week project called “Our World Is Colourful” in April 2016. In the context of growing tensions on a global scale regarding refugees and migration, this project was developed to help the children within the kindergarten understand each other’s backgrounds and everything that goes with that: obvious differences like languages, but also subtle cultural differences like playing games. My mother, who runs the kindergarten, came up with the idea.

A full week of activities and learning sessions was dedicated to each of the seven nationalities present in the kindergarten: Germany, Turkey, Poland, Romania, Spain, the Netherlands and Syria.  For every country, they first held a short introduction in form of a presentation, including pictures and photos of the country itself, of the country’s capital, the flag, the people, the different regions and landscapes, and cultural aspects such as food, dance or religions. In the course of each week, the children would then cook or bake typical food such as Baklava from Turkey or Poffertjes from the Netherlands, as well as do arts and crafts about the country. They would also get together in cross-group exercises to play games that the children of the respective country would then teach their peers.

Within this context, the children learned some of each country’s language through songs and books.  “Brother John”, “Bruder Jakob” or “Frere Jacques” (as it is most commonly known) was the song used in every language, to show the linguistic differences paired with a common, shared melody.

For every language, they also had a parent, sibling or speaker of the language come in to read a book. Each page of the book was read in both the new language and in German. This is where I became involved in the project. Having studied in the Netherlands, I am a speaker of Dutch. Since the Dutch children’s parents couldn’t make it, my mom asked me whether I would be able to read for the children. They were all familiar with the story beforehand, which helped them understand the foreign language even better. Every now and then, the children started laughing and shouting “I understood that word!”, or “That word sounded funny!”, which made the whole experience really enjoyable.

The following week, the next country was Syria. At the time, I was teaching German as a second language to Syrian refugee kids. Their siblings attended the kindergarten, so it seemed a good idea for my students to come and read the children’s book in Arabic. Their German was good enough to translate the book, so they had a chance to practice their German too. Both my students and the children really enjoyed it, taking turns in reading and translating, asking each other questions and answering them together. Making the children aware of a linguistic difference was probably the most challenging, since they would not understand (most of) it, but probably one of the most effective approaches to make them aware of why the bilingual children sometimes don’t know words, make mistakes or sometimes don’t even dare to say anything.

The children clearly enjoyed the project and got a lot out of it. It sparked curiosity about each other, and led to them asking other children about their families, and in general, talking a lot more about the things they were introduced to.

Multilingualism and multiculturalism in rural Germany aren’t traditionally big topics, but because of the recent developments and current political discussions, I think it is more important than ever to show that foreign cultures and languages should be not only tolerated and respected, but embraced and celebrated. This project was a perfect example to show every sceptic that we can learn a lot from children: their openness and enthusiasm to embrace differences was inspiring. Rather than feeling negative about their differences, what’s more important is making friends, learning new things and, most importantly, who gets the last piece of baklava.

©iStock.com/Rawpixel

Hola! Early years Spanish programme in Glasgow

In February 2018, Antonella Sorace visited Indigo Childcare in Glasgow to give a talk to parents and staff about bilingualism and language learning. They have recently launched a Spanish Programme, which is proving popular with both the children and the parents. We asked them some questions about their programme for our Spring 2018 newsletter.

  1. What are the aims of the Spanish Programme at Indigo Childcare?

At the Indigo group, we aim to offer outstanding quality of learning and play experiences for our children and families. In the geographical areas we operate in, it is particularly important that we are focused on closing the attainment gap. For our part that means ensuring we provide the highest quality of early years’ experience and exploring creative ways to strengthen the development of children. Our programme aims to: [Read more…]

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.  [Read more…]

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!

©iStock.com/Professor25

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

©iStock.com/Giii

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…]