Study proposes practical solution to challenges faced by bilingual children

Research news

Thursday 22 February 2018

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Researchers have made a major breakthrough in the assessment of language development among bilingual families and in the identification of children who require extra support to improve their language skills.

During a three-year study involving nine UK universities, academics interviewed almost 400 families with two-year-old children learning English and another of 13 common additional languages.

They were able to demonstrate for the first time that those learning English and a phonetically or grammatically close language (such as Dutch or German) knew more words in their other language than those learning more distant languages such as Mandarin or Greek.

The team used the findings to create and test the first toolkit for health professionals to accurately assess how bilingual children’s language skills are developing.

Led by the University of Plymouth, the research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of a collaboration including the universities of Bangor, Birmingham, Kent, Liverpool, and Oxford. Academics at Coventry, East Anglia and Essex were also involved.

With figures suggesting that almost 20% of children of school age in the UK are bilingual, its findings could have major implications for young people’s personal and professional prospects, as well as national health and education systems.

Currently, all two-year-olds are required to have a health assessment to monitor their development, and the researchers hope their UK Bilingual Toddler Assessment Toolkit (UKBTAT) can become a standard component in that assessment.

It can also be used by a wide range of health practitioners, including speech and language therapists, social workers, educational psychologists, and GPs.

The UKBTAT includes a list of familiar English words that parents tick off if their child recognises or can say them, and a similar list of familiar words in their additional language.

It also features a language questionnaire that a health practitioner can complete with the help of the parents. This assesses the proportion of time the child spends engaged in an English-speaking setting compared with their additional language.

These answers are processed through the toolkit’s statistical model to produce a result which shows where the child is situated in terms of the average level of proficiency across the UK. 

This will allow practitioners to identify bilingual toddlers who may need additional support with their language development, not possible until now.

The final research is published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 

The project leader Dr Caroline Floccia, associate professor in psychology at the University of Plymouth, said:

“Language is a foundation for harmonious development in a child and being bilingual is now a norm across the world. In the majority of cases, their development in each language is slightly delayed compared to that of monolingual children, which can have knock-on effects both for them and (when they get to school) their peers. 

“We are proposing the first practical solution to the problems faced by bilingual children, because the earlier we identify and tackle these potential issues, the more likely a positive outcome for the children and their prospects.”

Dr Rosa Kwok, a research associate at Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, was involved in interviewing the parents of bilingual children as part of the study. She said: 

“While there are valuable benefits that come from being bilingual, there are costs to be paid for being fluent in two languages. 

“It’s often very easy for us as educators to make a presumptuous judgement regarding a bilingual child’s language development based on the words that they can understand and speak in English.

"We often forget the vast amount of knowledge that these bilingual children have in their first language. 

“One of the key things that parents can do is to ensure that their bilingual child builds a solid foundation in their native language so that all this knowledge can be transferred to their second language when they start to learn English.”