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Researching bilingualism in the context of UK schooling

There are more than a million children between 5–18 years old in UK schools who speak some 360 languages between them, and more than 60 of these languages are taught in community language classes.

Bilingualism in practice in the UK still means, on the whole, minority L1 pupils learning English. The priority to develop English is the underlying assumption about language in the UK classroom and so minority language development is not addressed systematically. In contrast, many other English speaking countries have developed different models of provision.

The main advance in the UK has been an acceptance, if not understanding, of the time it takes to develop English in school settings. There is also an understanding that first language to second language transfer is possible but limited evidence of how this works in the classroom.

Empirical data is therefore needed to map and profile the development of pupils' languages in the context of UK mainstream education. Research questions therefore include:

  • What do the language profiles of bilingual pupils look like?
  • Are there identifiable types or configurations of bilingual repertoires?
  • What is the impact on language and cognitive development, in relation to the type of support provided for L1 and L2 development?

UK Research Findings

An action research project (Kenner,C., Gregory, E. Ruby, M. 2007) examined how second and third generation British Bangladeshi children learn bilingually in after-school community language classes and investigated the benefits that can be gained if children use Sylheti/Bengali alongside English in the mainstream classroom. Children found it difficult to use Sylheti/ Bengali in the classroom, although they were accustomed to using it in the playground and at community class, where they switched between languages. Children wanted to be able to use Bangla for learning in school and felt it was an important part of their identity.

The authors argued that working in both languages can enhance children’s learning, through conceptual transfer, use of translation, developing metalinguistic awareness and drawing on cultural knowledge. Second and third generation children still have bilingual skills, but are in danger of losing them unless they have sufficient support to develop their mother tongue. In addition to community language classes, children need to do academic work bilingually in mainstream school in order to fully develop concepts and skills in mother tongue as well as English. Only then will they achieve the full benefits of bilingual learning.

Sneddon’s ongoing pilot study which began in July 2006 considers how children, who have no opportunity to learn their community language in complementary or mainstream schools, use dual language books provided by the school to learn to read it.

Sneddon found that: where books in the community language are difficult to obtain, the role of the school and of the class teacher is crucial; learning to read in the family language encouraged children to use the family language more in the home; the children and their parents used very different strategies at different stages of reading and in situations where the relationship between languages and scripts was different; parents less fluent in English improved their English; parents encouraged by the school to develop their child’s biliteracy became more involved in their child’s education.

The Role of Grandparents in Children’s Learning (Kenner,C., Arju,T., Gregory,E., Jessel,J., Ruby,M. 2004) describes an ESRC funded research project carried out with six families of Bangladeshi origin and six monolingual English families. The researchers suggest potential benefits if teachers widen their links with ‘parents and carers’ to ensure that the significant role of grandparents is recognised and built upon in home-school interactions.

Complementary schools and their communities in Leicester Peter Martin, Angela Creese and Arvind Bhatt, 2003

The report of this 2003 ESRC funded study on the provision of complementary education and the role played by the schools in their communities found the most noticeable feature of the discourses of the two Gujerati schools and their classrooms studied was the skilful and spontaneous juxtaposition of English and Gujarati. Whereas bilingualism is not part of the mainstream educational agenda, in complementary schools the two languages occurredg side by side in an unproblematic and uncontested way.

Dr Raymonde Sneddon's research project highlighted how children can thrive on a complex diet of language and literacy, contrary to the expectation of many English teachers. The children in the study demonstrated a strong awareness of their different languages and considerable insight into their different uses in their every day life.

Barradas' research study at Goldsmiths College, University of London suggests that Portuguese students who attend mother tongue classes have a much higher probability of obtaining grades A*-C.

Children see language as a feature of their identity was the finding of Ana Souza's research study of children learning Brazilian Portuguese. The children, who had Brazilian mothers and fathers of other nationalities, were interviewed and observed in their community school. The findings illustrated that children’s reasons for selecting between the use of English and Portuguese are related to identity issues and to the way they wanted to be perceived by their classmates and teachers. The author argued that having information about facts in the children’s lives and how they feel in relation to these is relevant in enabling teachers to reinforce positive factors of the children’s identities, and thus contribute to the full development of multilingual and multicultural learners.

A study of Chinese children aged 8-10 who recently entered British primary schools found they feel isolated, are bullied and suffer academically due to lack of support in learning English. The children are isolated because they cannot communicate with teachers and fellow classmates verbally. They are seen as an easy target for bullying by peers because they cannot defend themselves in English. Meanwhile, most teachers hold low expectations regarding the capabilities of children from non-English speaking backgrounds. These problems have a negative impact on the Chinese children’s confidence and selfimage.

A six-year research study of mainly Pahari and Urdu speaking children of Pakistani heritage suggested that many were learning to read in three languages at the age of 5 .

A research study of Bosnian parents suggest they struggle to maintain their children's bilingualism