Beginnings for bilingual bridges

Virginia Lam reports from the 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.

The second seminar

There’s a popular notion that being bilingual gives the speaker an ‘advantage’ that goes beyond the obvious perks of communicating with two linguistic communities and opening doors to their worlds. Some research suggests that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in mental flexibility, perspective taking, and even creativity. We've come a long way from a common misconception half a century ago that an extra home language would interfere with learning and hinder educational progress.

If there is a genuine advantage from being bilingual, this deserves greater attention from both the research and practice communities. ‘How may growing up bilingual impact developmental outcomes’ took place on 25th February. Ten researchers and practitioners spoke on the topic engaging over 50 face-to-face and livestream attendees, aiming for ‘synergies’: to build partnerships for more knowledge exchange, research and public engagement. 

The first session covering a range of bilingual outcomes began with Dean D’Souza’s (City University) talk on infants’ adaptation to bilingual environments, which were explained as more ‘varied’ where adaptive behaviour such as observation of lip movements may facilitate functions such as attention switches. This was followed by Roberto Filippi’s (UCL) review of bilingual myths, including deficits, as dispelled by lifespan data. This reveals only small multilingual-monolingual differences across functions, and new evidence suggests highly specific benefits for socioeconomically disadvantaged bilinguals.

Next, Ludovica Serratrice (Reading) presented work on the story comprehension of bilingual children, showing how ‘vocabulary depth’ in the form of well-connected representations of words and related concepts offers a basis for successful story inferences with educational implications. Then Lisa-Maria Müller’s (Chartered College of Teaching) talk extricated the links between bilingualism and children’s wellbeing through higher-quality communications with the wider family and community. The session ended with a lively roundtable, chaired by Shiri Lev-Ari (Royal Holloway), discussing how, rather than a simplistic broad ‘advantage’, the impact of bilingual development may best be advanced as specific effects on particular groups.

The approach of considering practice with specific populations was highlighted in the second session, covering settings that support bilingual children. It started with Katherine Solomon’s talk on Bell Foundation, which works to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL), using targeted learning resources and home language skills with various partners and strategies. The next speaker, Luljeta Nuzi, resonated with this as she explained Sphresa’s (‘hope’) work as a user-led programme she founded. It garners practical and social capital from the Albanian community, with partners to solve problems or improve wellbeing, such as settling refugee families and language schooling. More on language schooling was illustrated by the third speaker, Vally Lytra (Goldsmiths), using the Greek community’s examples in Switzerland that foster early years heritage language and culture learning. We then followed with findings from our project in London indicating both cognitive (attention) and social (identity) effects of language schooling through elevating the heritage language proficiency of primary-aged bilinguals. Both collective and unique features of heritage languages and communities were noted by the chair Leena Robertson (Middlesex), who encouraged us to consider those as rich, timely ‘funds of knowledge’ that can be mapped to numerous bilingual outcomes and practices.

The talks and roundtables were complimented by the viewing of posters presented by the speakers’ PhD students (thanks to Xuran Han, Chris Pelz, UCL; Catia Ribeiro, Sara Shahwan and Thomas Quehl, Goldsmiths; and Debra Page, Reading) and further discussions through the break and buffet. It was significant and heartening that mainstream and language school heads, EAL coordinators and other practitioners made time to participate alongside academics, sharing their observations, experiences and ideas. These meaningful dialogues will clearly continue after this seminar – the first face-to-face external knowledge exchange event for many of us since the start of the pandemic.

-        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. See also a recording of the second seminar.

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

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