Life as a research student of bilingualism

I have always loved languages. In particular, I have always loved French, and I started to learn basic words and phrases during my childhood years. (Famously, my dad tried to make me say thank you in French before I got to blow out the candles on my 4th birthday cake, but before I could, my 2 year old sister came out with a tiny merci and completely stole the limelight.) I originally hail from Australia, so when we moved to the UK in 2002 I was very excited to be surrounded by so many different languages – despite the fact that Australia is home to over 200 indigenous languages, nearly 80% of the population speak only English[1]. Visiting Paris at age 12 left quite an impression on me, as I’d never been somewhere where the street signs weren’t in English. Listening to people chat on the métro with no idea what they were talking about sparked great curiosity within me. Ten years later,  I’ve ended up really quite in love with speaking French (my sister can no longer trump me) and as a postgraduate research student at the University of Edinburgh, the French language now forms a major part of my research.


Meeting and studying bilingual children over the last year or so has been fantastic. I often feel somewhat envious whenever I meet a pre-schooler who can communicate proficiently in two languages without even batting an eyelid, but mostly I’m just in awe of them. Take one of the children I studied for my undergraduate degree last year, who is trilingual. She was four at the time. Her mother is a native French speaker, her father a native Spanish speaker, and they live in Edinburgh, surrounded by English speakers. When I went to meet this little girl, I spoke to her mother at length about when and with whom her daughter used each of her languages, to get an idea of her everyday pattern of use. This is a crucial part of all multilingual studies, as it’s actually incredibly rare to find someone who is exactly balanced in the use of their languages. We researchers want to know which languages a bilingual or trilingual person uses at home, at school or work, with family, with friends, on holiday, when they read, when they watch TV…all of this information helps us understand more about bilingualism in general. This little girl spent her days with either her mother (speaking only French) or a childminder (speaking only English). Her father was there in the mornings and at weekends, and when he was around, they spoke only Spanish. She was completely proficient in all three of these languages, happily chatting to me in English and switching effortlessly to speak to her mother in French when she came into the room. Her father wasn’t there, but had he been I’m sure she would have switched just as easily into her third language.


Apart from being something quite wonderful to observe, spending time with this trilingual girl was also fantastic from a research point of view, as there’s a lot to be learned about language development by studying multilingual children. Some of the biggest research questions in the field ask how language development in multilingual children might differ from language development in monolingual children, and why this might be. It was said by François Grosjean that a bilingual person is not simply two monolingual people rolled into one, which motivates me – and others I’m sure – to go in search of what actually constitutes a bilingual. For example, I’m most interested in how a bilingual’s languages might influence each other – do bilinguals say things that a monolingual might not? Do they perform differently to monolinguals in certain tasks? Do bilinguals who speak one set of languages perform differently to bilinguals who speak a different set? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – there are so many more questions to address.  In fact, one of the best things about doing research in this area is that you never have to stop asking questions! (Great news for me – I ask a lot of questions.)


Of course, doing research with children – monolingual and bilingual alike – is not without its difficulties. Research that looks at adult participants will often involve an hour or more of testing for each individual, and it’s not unreasonable to expect them to devote their attention to a task for that length of time. (Also, they can be bribed with home baking.) However, it is far less easy to hold a child’s attention on one task for more than about 20 minutes. This makes research a little bit trickier, as shorter experiments mean relatively fewer pieces of analysable data.  There is also the added challenge of making a task fun. While an adult might be willing to read out 100 sentences word by word on a computer screen or describe pictures non-stop for half an hour, it’s entirely necessary for children to want to do your task. Experiments are therefore nearly always moulded into some kind of game format, where there are toys or pictures to play with and a prize at the end. For my undergraduate dissertation, for example, I played a modified version of Snap! with my 3-5 year old participants. They loved it. Such was their focus on beating me (which, to my eternal shame, most of them did) that they weren’t in the least bit perturbed by having to describe their cards out loud or being recorded. This is precisely why it’s so great to have a task that most kids love – if they don’t like it, they won’t do it, and then you won’t have any data to analyse!


This year, for my Masters, I’m designing a game to be played on a computer or iPad by French/English bilingual children. The children get to interact with some animated characters in the game and I’m interested to see how they use their two languages during this interaction. I’m studying bilinguals living here in the UK and also bilinguals living in France, so that I can see if there are any differences among participants that might relate to the language spoken in the community. I’m really excited about this project, not only because of the information I’ll be collecting, but also because of the people I’ll get to meet – chatting with parents, teachers and of course children about bilingualism is a great way to learn more about the bilingual community, outside of what gets published in academic journals. By next August, I will have finished the study and written my dissertation, which I hope will contain some really interesting data and a discussion about where to go next in this field of research. If I haven’t spontaneously combusted (which I’m assured all postgraduates feel like they will do at some point) then I hope to progress to a PhD in this area, where I can tackle a much larger question and aim to shed light on some new aspect of bilingualism.


I hope that in writing this I’ve given a bit of an insight into what it’s like to be involved in the research side of bilingualism. I hope even more that I’ve managed to convey just how much I love it, and how great my experiences as part of the bilingual community have been. I would encourage anyone and everyone to get involved with some research at some point in their lives, either as part of a research team or as a participant – remember, it pays well in cakes! Baking aside, the ultimate goal of any research is to learn something new about the world, and there really is a great sense of achievement that comes with contributing in some way – no matter how small – to the ever-growing font of human knowledge.


[1] According to the 2011 census:


*If you are interested in hearing more or taking part in my research of French-English bilingual children (aged 3-5) please get in touch via email. My contact details are available here.