Children who grow up hearing two or more languages do not always end up actively using all their languages as they get older. In such cases, it’s typically the heritage or minority language which suffers at the expense of the school language. As we heard in the last episode of Kletsheads when I spoke to my neighbour Kate, children may be perfectly capable of speaking the heritage language but prefer to use the language or languages spoken at school. in some cases, however, they might not be able to speak the heritage language well enough in order to express themselves properly. This is often a great source of frustration for parents, who may feel disappointed and in some cases rejected by their child’s inability or unwillingness to use their native language. It can also make communication quite difficult and parents may sometimes switch to speaking the school language in order to be able to communicate with their child, even though in some cases they themselves might not be very proficient in that language. All of this can a negative impact on the relationship between parent and child, and on children’s well-being. This is the topic we’re talking about in this episode of Kletsheads, together with researchers Elspeth Wilson and Napoleon KatsosWhat is the impact of children’s use and knowledge of the heritage language on family well-being? We talk about the role of language use and language proficiency (it’s quite hard to disentangle the two), about the importance of promoting the heritage language culture, and we share tips for parents and teachers about what you can do to make sure that the bilingual children in your environment are happy, engaged and generally feel positive about life!

We also hear our second Kletsheads Quick & Easy (starts 21:18), a concrete tip that you can put to use straightaway to make a success of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic. This episode’s tip: find one new source of language input for your child’s heritage language. 

Dr. Elspeth Wilson is a post-doctoral researcher in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. Her research mostly focuses on how children learn to understand what other people mean when they’re talking, especially when what they literally say is often not what they mean (this area of linguistics is known as pragmatics). 

Professor Napoleon Katsos is professor of Experimental Pragmatics in the section Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at the University of Cambridge. One of his many research interests is language learning in monolingual and bilingual children and on the relation between bilingualism and autism.

Together with colleagues, Elspeth and Napoleon published what’s called a scoping review on the relationship between bilingualism and well-being. A scoping review is bascially a way of bringing together all the research that’s been done on a topic and summarising it for others. As we heard in the episode, there’s not actually that much research on this topic but what there is, you can find in this paper. Here are the full details: 

Müller, L-M., Howard, K., Wilson, E., Gibson, J., & Katsos, N. (2020). Bilingualism in the family and child well-being: A scoping review. International Journal of Bilingualism24(5-6), 1049-1070. doi:10.1177/1367006920920939  

It’s open access, which means that you can go to the website and read it there or download it for free. (Should that not work for you, send Kletsheads a message and we’ll email it you!).

Elspeth and Napoleon are also part of the Cambridge Bilingualism Network, and as Napoleon mentioned on the podcast, they helped develop a set of materials for bilingual parents-to-be and antenatal practioners who work with them. You can find these on the We Speak Multi website

Another great resource when it comes to well-being in bilingual families is the Harmonious Bilingualism Network directed by Professor Annick De Houwer. Her work was also mentioned in the podcast and you can find out more about Annick and her research on the Harmonious Bilingualism Network’s website, which is available in EnglishFrenchGerman and Dutch

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