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: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/crc.pdf

[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, https://www.unicef.org/gender/training/content/resources/Glossary.pdf

[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.