Beginnings for bilingual bridges

Virginia Lam reports from the first in a BPS-funded seminar series, ‘Growing Up Bilingual: Research and practitioner synergies’.

There’s an oft-quoted estimate, by François Grosjean, that over half of the world use more than one language. That may not seem to apply to the UK at first glance – only 7.7 per cent of the population report using a language other than English from the Census – but the figures are far higher in urban areas, which reflect the reality of many families. In London and Manchester, surveys have shown, respectively, over 300 and 150 home languages, with 20-50% of pupils in some boroughs using more than one. 

Considering we face a linguistically diverse future, and bilingualism research is flourishing, there remains remarkably little direct or lasting liaison, especially to co-create new research agendas or practice developments, between academics and practitioners. Our seminar series, with funding from our British Psychological Society Research Seminar Competition award, reflects our continuing research of young bilinguals and desire to bridge the academic and practice communities. The aim is the exchange of findings, ideas or experiences between those of us who work within universities and those whose ‘day job’ supports bilingual children. A key aim, the ‘synergies’, is to build partnerships for more knowledge exchange, research-informed practice or practice-relevant research. 

The title ‘Growing Up Bilingual: Researcher and practitioner synergies’, or ‘GUB’, derived from our eponymous project (ESRC-funded via the UBEL Collaborative DTP 2018-22) collaborating with the Newham Partnership for Complementary Education. On 5 November 2021, 50 people – a mixture of academics and practitioners – attended the first (of three) seminars in the series, titled ‘How do bilingual children acquire and maintain their languages?’

The seminar was kickstarted with the engaging keynote by Antonella Sorace, founder of Bilingualism Matters, on her projects connecting research with bilingual communities. This was followed by talks given by distinguished researchers and established practitioners, or both: Caroline Floccia (professor, University of Plymouth) on effects of language distance on two-year-old bilinguals’ vocabulary growth; Cate Hamilton, a seasoned practitioner, on her ‘evolution’ from teaching French to founding ‘Babel Babies’, a bilingual early years programme; Meesha Warmington (Sheffield) on her work developing language assessments for English-Hindi/Urdu bilinguals; Eowyn Crisfield (Oxford Brookes, education consultant) and Hamish Chalmers (Oxford, NALDIC vice-chair), as ‘hybrid’ academic-practitioners, on school-family language planning partnerships and setting EAL research priorities with stakeholders.

Whilst the intertwining research and practice realms of our speakers were highly informative, much of the emerging synergy came from Q&As, and the roundtable chaired by Eva Eppler, my Linguistics colleague at Roehampton. A recurring theme, language status, was picked up – and unpicked – by our speakers and audience through myriad lenses such as language standardisations, stigmatisation, the monolingual-majority practice norms, and poignantly, whether it is ‘our job’ to challenge these. The seminar gave us plenty of food for thoughts, and post-event feedback regarding the ‘impact on own work’ reflects this: ‘…enjoyed the [new] academic knowledge gained, info, points and discussion’, ‘I would like to incorporate more to support bilingual pupils in my practice’, etc.

So onwards and upwards! This is clearly just a beginning – a stimulating and promising one. GUB has actually been a recent research venture that reminds of my taken-for-granted ‘growing up bilingual’ experience. Sharing with others within the event has brought home how we, whether as academics, practitioners or ‘just’ bilingual people, can make our work (including planning for our next seminars) and insights ‘accessible’ to each other, such as by being open and relatable with our observations or and experiences, apart from making our findings and practices comprehensible and usable.

-        Virginia Lam is senior lecturer of Psychology at the University of Roehampton and the principal investigator and recipient for the Growing Up Bilingual ESRC-funded research project and BPS- funded series. Layal Husain – PhD researcher of the GUB Project, University of East London – is co-organiser of this series.

The Growing Up Bilingual project has a website and blog, which contain a link to a recording of this seminar.

Find out more about the British Psychological Society's Research Seminar Competition.

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