Bilingualism Matters in Luxembourg

Bilingualism Matters Luxembourg launches on Friday 5th March 2021. The branch will be hosted by the University of Luxembourg Faculty of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences. The Director is Dr Claudine Kirsch, Associate Professor in Languages, who is joined by a team of active researchers on multilingualism from social, educational and psychological perspectives. The branch aims to:

  • Generate high-quality research in the field of multilingualism in a range of disciplines and across disciplines
  • Provide scientific knowledge, information and advice to teachers, educators, university lecturers, parents, health and other professionals, managers in multilingual organizations, researchers, as well as policy-makers
  • Inform attitudes towards multilingualism of parents and professionals in education and public sectors
  • Promote multilingual education at home as well as in formal and non-formal education sectors
  • Facilitate the creation of materials to support the development of multiple languages and literacies in a range of contexts
  • Raise awareness of the role of multilingualism and multiculturalism in teaching and learning

The BM Luxembourg website will be launched soon – keep an eye on our social media and website for updates. In the meantime you can contact the team using this email address

See the full list of Bilingualism Matters branches around the world here.

Accent Positivity

Post by By Maria Dokovova, BM Edinburgh Volunteer

One aspect of bilingualism that often flies under the radar is people’s accents. The “not what you say, but how you say it”.

English language academics have often defined bilingualism as the ability to pass for a monolingual in each of the languages. [1, 2, 3]  However, it is one of the earliest and some of the more recent definitions that emphasise the fluid aspect of people’s accents and thankfully don’t require people to erase their identities to be counted as bilinguals. [4, 5]

You don’t need to look far to see the impact of the strict bilingualism definitions. Indeed, the foreign language learning outcomes listed by the Bulgarian Ministry of Education expect high school students to use a native-like accent in their chosen foreign language. The Ministry diplomatically refrains from specifying which native accents are acceptable. As someone who has attended a Bulgarian high-school, something tells me that regional native accents or an accent that matches the students’ social class within their second language might be discouraged by their teachers. Of course, I would love it if I was proved wrong!

The more insidious impact of this philosophy lies in the feelings of shame and inadequacy that it breeds among foreign language learners. Most people I know who have tried to speak a foreign language are immediately faced with how different they sound from the “native” standard. Moreover, second language accents are a mockery staple, especially in a classroom full of teenagers. This results in unwillingness to speak, or in people harboring shame in the failure to change something that is inextricably linked to their identity.

Changing our accent is linked to accepting a new identity. Fellow second language English speakers have asked me countless times to help them get rid of their Bulgarian accent. And why not? If your native accent will lower your score in standardized language testing, lead to lower levels of trust 6, and lower intelligibility 7 then frankly, I might want to consider changing my accent as well!

And so I have, actually. I still remember how alien it felt when I was in high-school in Bulgaria. Every time I tried to adopt an English ‘received pronunciation’ twist, I felt like I was lying to everyone by trying to be someone I am not. However, later in my life, when I was immersed in an environment that led me to rapidly grow as a person, I effortlessly absorbed the accent of the young US women I was surrounded by and whom I ended up identifying with. So, every time I get a compliment for not sounding like someone who identifies as Bulgarian, I take that as a reflection of the person’s values rather than a compliment on the effort that I didn’t actually put into changing my accent.

There is so much more to be said on this topic and we want to encourage everyone to share their perspective and experiences online using this hashtag: #accentpositivity

For now I just want to challenge the reader to try the following exercise. [Disclaimer: I do this exercise regularly, because I need it too: challenging feelings and assumptions that arise automatically after years of societal conditioning is not wrong because it feels uncomfortable.] Consider these questions and how they make you feel: What if people’s accents are just an element of their identity? What if my accent is just an element of my identity? What if they are not a moral choice, or a failure at tongue gymnastics? For the sake of this mental exercise, what does it feel like to accept people’s accents with positivity for what they are?

As a society we are already trying not to treat people poorly because of their skin colour, size, sexuality, gender identity, religion, social class or place of origin. All of these facets can find a way to express themselves in people’s accents and voices. Do we want to encourage their erasure? Or can we adjust to society’s expectations to embrace the myriad wonderful accents our individual identities have created?

[1] Bloomfield, L. (1933), Language, H. Holt, New York.

[2] Huston, N. (2002), Losing North: Musings on Land, Tongue and Self, McArthur, Toronto.

[3] Thiery, C. (1978), “True Bilingualism and Second-language Learning”, in Gerver, D. and Wallace Sinaiko, H. (Eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication, Springer US, Boston, MA, pp. 145–153.

[4] Haugen, E. (1956), Bilingualism in the Americas: A Bibliography and Research Guide, American Dialect Society.

[5] de Bot, K. and Jaensch, C. (2015), “What is special about L3 processing?*”, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 130–144.

[6] Foucart, A., Santamaría-García, H. and Hartsuiker, R. (2017), “First impression matters. Impact of a foreign accent on cognitive processes.”, presented at the Conference on Multilingualism, Groningen, the Netherlands, p. 33.

[7] van Wijngaarden, S.J., Steeneken, H.J.M. and Houtgast, T. (2002), “Quantifying the intelligibility of speech in noise for non-native talkers”, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 112 No. 6, pp. 3004–3013.

Much Language Such Talk – launch of new BM podcast

We are delighted to launch a new Bilingualism Matters podcast, Much Language Such Talk, which will release fortnightly episodes on bi- and multilingualism and what it means to speak more than one language.

Through engaging interviews with researchers, experts, parents, teachers and much more, each podcast episode will explore different topics, such as language change, how we learn languages at different ages, bilingualism and language disorders, language identity and culture, minority languages, language policies, and language education.

The podcast is produced by our wonderful volunteers at Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh, and we look forward to going on this exciting language journey with them.

Visit the Much Language Such Talk website

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.

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…]

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. [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

[Read more…]

Bilingualism: what about dialects?

Commonly, when thinking about bilingualism our first thought goes to people who grew up in a family speaking more than one standard language… But how about the case of people who use both a standard language, such as English or Italian, as well as a local dialect? This is a very common situation in many countries around the world.

From the linguistic point of view, regional dialects are just as rich and complex as standard languages, even if, in many cases, they have similar vocabularies, grammars, and sounds. But from a historical and administrative point of view, standard languages and dialects have very different statuses, and this is often reflected in the different contexts in which each is used. For example, the standard language may be encouraged at school while the local variant may be used in the home. This difference in statuses, together with the linguistic similarities, means that many people may overlook the bilingual experience of those who also speak a dialect. In other words, they are not considered bilingual at all. [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…]