A new research project, launched last week through our Department of Education, will assess the changes in attitude towards multilingualism and multilingual children in the UK, to help policy makers support the academic development and social wellbeing of pupils with more than one language.

The two-year ESRC-funded project – ‘Family Language Policy: A Multilevel Investigation of Multilingual Practices in Transnational Families’ – looks at how different family language policies (FLPs) have evolved in the UK, and will seek to draw lessons that can help both multilingual communities and schools adapt practice to better support growing multilingualism in the country.

According to latest Census data, as many as one in six primary aged school pupils come from transnational and multilingual families with more than one million pupils in English schools speaking at least one language in addition to English. Among the most commonly used ethnic languages, after English and Welsh, are Polish, Chinese and Somali.

The researchers behind the work, Professor Xiao Lan Curdt-Christiansen and Dr Jing Huang from our Department of Education, along with colleagues at the Institute of Education, UCL and Birkbeck College, University of London, will use a multi-level, multi-community and multi-type family design. Their research will include non-transnational and transnational families across the UK with focus on three communities – Chinese, Polish and Somali.

Interconnected world

Professor Curdt-Christiansen explains:

In our increasingly interconnected world, with more and more families raising bilingual and multilingual children, we need to think more strategically about how we as a society respond. Multilingualism offers huge advantages to the UK in terms of future global trade and commerce, but how our schools are set up and the advice parents of multilingual children are given do no always align with this aim.

We want to understand more about the current landscape for languages in this country, including the similarities and differences between communities, in order to consider how we might adapt systems to better support children growing up multilingual.

Assessing Family Language Policy

Family Language Policy addresses children’s multilingual development in three interrelated aspects: language ideology referring to what family members believe about certain languages; language practices or how families use language everyday; and language management or the efforts families make to maintain and develop a language.

Whereas some families may actively embrace multilingualism, it is believed that many families entertain the misconception that children should forget their own language and focus more on English in order to perform and integrate better in British schools.

The launch event for the project, held on Thursday 2 November at the University of Bath Office in London, was opened by Baroness Coussins, Chair of the APPG on Modern Languages. Multilingual Bath MP, Wera Hobhouse, also contributed to the event, as did Mr Janusz Wolosz from the Polish Embassy.

Speaking at the launch, Baroness Coussins, said:

My mantra is that in the 21st Century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English. So it really is a great pleasure for me to be here today amongst like-minded people who understand and have a love for languages, and understand how important multilingualism is, especially in the 21st Century.

There are, of course, many reasons, which we might call utilitarian reasons, for learning languages other than our own, even when our own is English. I can’t go into all the details today, but you will know that these are reasons like: trade, export, defence and security – but the value of learning languages is also about cultural capital and intercultural understanding. You don’t just learn about the grammar - important and wonderful though that it is – you learn about another culture, another way of thinking, another way of living.

One of the reasons I think this research is so interesting and so important, is that it spans both the utilitarian and the cultural spaces. It will tell us about technical linguistics, things to do with language development, language transfer and language maintenance, but it’s also about how families work and how communities function, about social cohesion and cultural transfer, and how language is the glue or the connective tissue between all these qualitative aspects of life and society.

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