Children, young people and families, Developmental, Race, ethnicity and culture

Beginnings for bilingual bridges

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

15 November 2021

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.

Seminar 3

What have we learnt about growing up bilingual? What is there still to learn about it? How may we use what we know or learn to help bilingual children towards optimum development? These are the key questions that framed our third event of Growing Up Bilingual (GUB) on 8th July at Roehampton. After our original plans being derailed by the strikes, we were still able to welcome back some of our previous contributors and a contingent of practitioners, as participants and potential collaborators.

As the final seminar in the series, it was a day of primarily interactive affairs, interspersed by a few informative and inspiring talks. The event started with Francesco Goglia (University of Exeter) talking about onward migration and linguistic repertoires. He presented findings on the growing community of young Italian-speakers in the UK post-migration to Italy and those born in Italy but with a heritage language from a third country. While English is the pull factor for their migration, the dynamic family language use gave us food for thoughts and fuel for discussions about the complex and everchanging linguistic landscape of multilingual young people navigating a seemingly monolingual society.

The rest of the morning afforded the other delegates the opportunity to first introduce themselves and expand on their specialisms, projects or organisational aims/interests. They included academic colleagues (Anthony Thorpe, Kyara Rojas-Bustos, Cecilia Essau, Roehampton; Roberto Filippi, Froso Argyri, UCL; Andrew Ravenscroft, UEL; Vally Lytra, Goldsmiths; Deirdre Birtles, Royal Holloway) and practitioners representing national and regional organisations (Liz Black, Association for Language Learning; Katherine Solomon, Bell Foundation; Krizstina Fogorasi, NALDIC - South London regional interest group; Ruth Durant, Richmond EAL Friendship entre; Sofia Gardini, Scuola di Sofia; Martin Pinder, Newham Partnership for Complementary Education).

The ensuing split-group discussions built on the themes covered in our previous seminars, such as factors and outcomes from bilingual development and those pertaining to pedagogy and policy (as language ideology) to take stock of what we had ‘learnt about growing up bilingual’. These led to a ‘co-creation’ activity based on past impactful case studies: collaborative, language-related projects to lend ideas to the formation of new lines of inquiry on bilingual development – or what we might ‘still learn about growing up bilingual’. The sessions were followed fittingly by the inspirational talk by Roehampton’s Research Cultures leader Melissa Jogie, on the ‘power of partnerships for cultural language and leadership’. With her miscellaneous funded projects, she exemplified the need for and potential outcomes from partnerships, beyond driving theory and research, such as sharpening and comparing practice, advocacy, and garnering expertise and innovation.

The post-lunch sessions were jumpstarted by an introduction to Bilingualism Matters by its London branch co-founder, Roberto Filippi, as a worldwide network of organisations that bridge science and community/practice through collaborations, advice and consultancy and information disseminations. This was followed by continuing co-creation activities, with consideration for funding and application of potential projects or activities for positive outcomes – how to ‘use our knowledge to help bilingual children towards optimum development’. An example included promoting bilingual practice through digital multimedia among young people, enabling them to take ownership of learning beyond books and text. After the penultimate session explored possible avenues for outputs from our series, as a special issue that caters to the eclectic coverage and the angle of academic-practitioner synergies, the event closed with our reflections on the day’s discussions in relation to, again: what we have learnt, what is still to learn, and how can we use our knowledge about growing up bilingual.

It's clear that the dialogues have only just begun, with some colleagues keen to move forward with shared interests without losing momentum. To do so, we are fortunate to be able to host a focused follow-on workshop in September while, serendipitously, one week post-event GUB was granted a presentation slot at the annual public engagement event The Language Show (November this year). Although the ‘official’ series is complete, we still have much to plot and plan, this time with a larger team than the one we started with – the result of a thought-provoking (as our practitioner feedback put it) process that has sown the seeds of synergies and partnerships.

- Dr Virginia Lam is senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Roehampton, and the principal investigator for the Growing Up Bilingual research project funded by the ESRC through the UBEL’s Collaborative DTP and this series funded by the BPS Research Seminar competition scheme. Layal Husain is the PhD researcher of the GUB project in her final year, and co-organiser for this series.

The Growing Up Bilingual project has its own website and blog that report on the research and this series.

Recording of the series can be accessed via:

Seminar 1

Seminar 2

Seminar 3

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