One of our favourite resources is Bilingualism Matters, which is also mentioned as an indispensable go-to in Eowyn’s book “Bilingual Families. A Practical Language Planning Guide.”. The organisation was founded by Prof. Antonella Sorace and is based at the University of Edinburgh. It provides a wealth of resources and advice on acquiring, learning, using and sustaining languages for families, communities and professionals, who raise or work with bi-/multilingual children, so that they are perfectly equipped to recognise their needs and tend to these needs in the most appropriate ways. Bilingualism Matters has 30 branches on three continents and is continuously growing, aiming to make information available to everyone on their quest to bridge the gap between research and daily practice.

Their annual Research Symposium took place in late October, where we got the chance to listen to a multitude of thought-provoking presentations on a variety of topics around bilingualism and bilingual development. There are so many points I would love to talk about and below are three that are fundamental to our work with families and practitioners.

  1. We mix languages more than we realise

As we’ve written before, a lot of caregivers are firm believers that mixing languages is not useful, might be confusing and even harmful to their children’s linguistic development. Therefore, a large number of bilingual families adopt approaches, such as One Language One Parent and implement strict ground rules, requiring everyone to separate their languages, whereby mixing and code-switching in any form is not allowed. Naturally, that prompts for corrections and even punishments.

Do you follow such strict rules? If so, are you sure you always stick with the language you’ve chosen and never mix? And do you believe deviations from these conventions might be damaging in some way?

The aim of the CALM project at the University of Utrecht is to investigate the role of language mixing – whether it is more difficult for children to learn a language when they receive mixed input as well as why and how children mix languages themselves. One important observation that might be of interest to caregivers who stick to stricter regiments of language use is that parents mix languages a lot more than they realise. Yes, we all mix languages (whether we like it or not) without realising – it happens unknowingly, even during supervised interviews with researchers! How about you – do you think you have it fully under control?

2. We tend to underestimate the power of individual differences

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Individual differences represent characteristics, particular to a language learner, which play a crucial role in the ways they acquire and learn a language. Some examples are personality, motivation, age, anxiety, aptitude or beliefs. However, in my work with caregivers and professionals, I have noticed that individual differences happen to be underestimated. Indeed, input is the holy grail of language learning and acquisition, but odds are that, if building a language strategy or a Family Language Plan without considering the child as an individual and tailoring it to their needs and interests, the undertaking will probably not come to fruition. Therefore, when planning a Family Language Policy, we need to be mindful of adapting our strategies and approaches. For instance, to a child’s age; their interests, when looking for materials, such as books; their personality; potentially also, anxiety levels, when choosing after-school activities or their motivation, when molding our language plan. Individual differences play a much bigger role than one might expect!

3. We need to adjust our Family Language Plan as our children grow

A question that is addressed repeatedly in our work with families is ‘How often should we review and adjust our Family Language Plan?’. An obvious assumption that is made frequently is – when a major change occurs, such as an international move. This is, of course, true, however, one thing that we remind caregivers of, as it is commonly overlooked, is the fact that a child ageing* is also a pretty significant change. Bilingualism (and language learning) is a journey and not a destination. It is dynamic and never static. Therefore, we need different strategies to tackle home-language maintenance when our children are 7 or 8 and completely different ones when they hit puberty, for example. And, indeed, individual differences play a crucial part, but the fact is that interests change, social circles change, physiology changes, our children change and if we want them to achieve their language goals and be successful bilinguals, we need to be the agents of change for our Family Language Policy.

Useful links:

*Research by Karen Rose, Sharon Armon-Lotem and Carmit Altman on the subject was presented at the Bilingualism Matters Symposium.

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