Bilingual families in lockdown and Mother Tongues [Transcript]

June 24, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads. The podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. In this final episode of the season, I talk to Francesca La Morgia, founder and director of Mother Tongues, a social enterprise working to promote multilingualism in the Republic of Ireland and in Hot off the Press, I tell you about some of my own research when I walk you through the findings of our study on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on multilingual families. What can we learn from our experiences during this extraordinary period in our lives as we move forward? And what should we do if we find ourselves in lockdown again in the future? Keep listening to find out more.

Hot off the Press

Sharon Unsworth: In Hot off the Press, I tell you about a new piece of research on bilingual children. I summarize the most important findings for you and try to translate them into practise. In the last Hot off the Press for this season, I’m going to tell you about the results of research that I did together with my students. And it’s about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on bilingual children here in the Netherlands. I promised to tell you about this in a special edition of the podcast back at the start of the season, but unfortunately never got around to it. So here goes. Better late than never. Here in the Netherlands, all restrictions were removed a few months ago, and there’s very little mention of COVID in the news. At the same time, the possibility of new outbreaks in the autumn and the reintroduction of restrictions that this would entail does remain real. So I think it’s still relevant to consider what has happened during the period of the pandemic and what we can learn from it moving forward.

Sharon Unsworth: When COVID hit and schools and childcare centres were closed, many parents around the world found themselves looking after younger children full time and supervising their older children’s homeschooling activities quite often at the same time as having to work from home. With borders closed trips to see family abroad were off the cards and contact with classmates and the wider society were very much restricted. This unprecedented set of circumstances provided a unique opportunity to study the language choices made in multilingual families, as well as the impact of the pandemic more generally. And that’s exactly what we did in a project carried out together with MA students at Radboud University, inspired by a similar project carried out in the UK by Ludovica Serratrice and colleagues. Our goal then was to establish the extent to which the pandemic impacted on language use, language proficiency, attitudes and well-being in multilingual families here in the Netherlands. The complete report is available online and the link is in the shownotes. Here, I’ll give you just the highlights.

Sharon Unsworth: So almost 600 families took part in an online survey, and together they had just over 1,000 children aged between 0 and 18 and on average 8 years old. Maybe you took part because many of the listeners to the podcast did so when we mentioned the project as part of an early episode on the impact of the lockdown on bilingual children. So if that was you, thanks again for taking part. Families came from all over the Netherlands. They were mostly highly educated, so the sample was not representative of all multilingual families in the Netherlands, but it was highly diverse in terms of the number of languages spoken. There were 64 different heritage languages. And in over 100 families, neither parent spoke Dutch. And what we also found was that most parents worked from home during the lockdowns.

Sharon Unsworth: So what did we find? Our first finding was that for most families, there was no change in children’s language use or parents language use, nor in children’s proficiency in their Dutch or heritage language or in the family’s well-being. Now, whilst this is perhaps not the most interesting finding, it’s definitely reassuring. Despite the upheaval that the pandemic has caused, for most of the families who participated in this survey, at least, this upheaval has not led to any significant changes relating to their multilingualism. When there was a change in language use, it was preschool children who were most likely to change than school aged children. And when they did, they switched to using more of the heritage language and less Dutch. We think this makes sense because for these children the main source of Dutch, childcare, was closed. And whilst this is also the case, of course for school aged children because of homeschooling, they still nevertheless maintain that link to Dutch. We also found that heritage language proficiency was also more likely to improve for the younger children and families with pre-school children were more likely to report an improvement in family well-being than families with school aged children only. The families with older children were more likely to report no change at all. Now we think that this may be because younger children needed more attention and support than school aged children. And hence, for this group, it might have been easier to spend more quality time together. And this ultimately led to an improvement for well-being for many. Compared with older children, pre-school children may have been less aware of the seriousness of the situation and its wider impact.

Sharon Unsworth: We turn now to the older children, the school aged children, and home schooling. So what we found was that four primary school aged children in our survey, two thirds of them were homeschooled. Around a third were homeschooled in Dutch only. Around a quarter in the heritage language only and the rest, so just under half, in both languages. And there are a couple of very interesting findings that came out of our study with respect to homeschooling. The first was that the languages used during homeschooling affected language use in the family more generally. So what do we mean by that? If there was a change in children’s language use, then the children who were using the heritage language for homeschooling, either some or all of the time, were more likely to start using the heritage language when speaking to the parents than children who used Dutch only during home schooling. Although again, most parents reported that their children didn’t change their language use. Another really interesting finding in this study relating to homeschooling is this: using the heritage language for homeschooling, either some or all of the time was not associated with a change in Dutch language proficiency. In other words, there’s no reason to believe that using the heritage language rather than or in addition to Dutch, had a negative impact on children’s Dutch language proficiency, at least, of course, as it’s reported by their parents. Using the heritage language for homeschooling, though, did have a positive impact on children’s heritage language proficiency. This was more likely to improve for children homeschooled in the heritage language some or all of the time when compared with children homeschooled in Dutch only.

Sharon Unsworth: So what can you learn from this study as a parent? Well, I think what these results show is that it’s okay to use your heritage language whilst homeschooling if you end up doing that again. Or maybe you’re doing it now. This won’t have a negative impact on children’s proficiency in this school language. In fact, using the heritage language, whilst homeschooling may increase the chances that children will use that language more themselves and that their proficiency will improve. Of course, I should say here that everything I’m telling you about this study is based on parents’ reports. So we don’t have any data relating what parents have said to, for example, scores of language tests that the children have taken at school. So that’s one thing to bear in mind.

Sharon Unsworth: What can you learn from this study? Is a teacher or a speech language therapist? Well, I think there are some clear implications for teachers here. One striking finding, which I actually haven’t mentioned so far, is that hardly any families were given instructions about which language to use during homeschooling. In any future lockdowns, it will be good to tell parents of bilingual children that it’s okay to homeschool in the heritage language. These results will hopefully also encourage teachers and parents to see the relevance of children’s heritage language skills as an active part of their education. The link to the report is in the shownotes. So if you want to read it, go ahead. There’s also an infographic summarizing the main findings, and it’s available both in Dutch and English.


Let’s Klets!

Francesca La Morgia: My name is Francesca La Morgia. I live in Dublin and I speak Italian and English with my children. I’m the founder and director of Mother Tongues, which is a non-for-profit organisation that supports families who are raising bilingual children in Ireland.

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome, Francesca. It’s great to have you on the podcast again because you’ve been on the podcast before, right, in our special episode about the impact of the lockdown on multilingual families. We’re going to talk today a bit more about what you do with Mother Tongues. You gave us a one-liner about what you do. Can you tell us a bit more about the types of activities that you do?

Francesca La Morgia: We have a programme for parents which involves, at the moment because we’re still online webinars, and parents can find out information about pretty much every step of the aspects of raising bilingual children, multilingual children. So we take parents through various steps of the typical life of a child who is growing up with more than one language. And we know the parents have many questions, so we’re there to answer those. We work with teachers as well. So we have a what we call a community of practice, which is a regular meet up of teachers from all over the country. And they also discuss similar issues but obviously, from the point of view of how the school can best support multilingualism and make the most of all the languages that children speak. _art of what we do is really listening to what people would like to see and to have, because it’s so little, not only in the support from the strict sense, but also in the celebration and the welcoming of different languages that often we consult with parents and we consult with teachers and say, well, what would you like to see? What would you like to do?

Sharon Unsworth: So so it’s really approaching multilingualism from a number of different ways, a wide range of ways. We’ll talk.. I want to talk to you a bit more about the relationship between multilingualism and arts, but first, maybe you can tell us a bit more about your own background. So how long have you been doing this? And you know, you’re a parent to multilingual children. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Francesca La Morgia: Yes. Well, first, I was really interested in bilingualism from when I was really a really young, like secondary school. I really found a couple of children fascinating because I had never come across at that point, children who could just switch from one language to the other. So I decided straight that I would go to university and study that kind of stuff. So I went straight for linguistics when I studied in university, and then over the years I became an academic and I taught language development at the university, first in Ireland, then in in England at the University of Reading, and then came back here to Dublin to teach in Trinity College. And after a few years in 2017, I set up Mother Tongues. And I suppose the idea for setting up an organisation that stands alone was coming from my experience as a researcher and as someone who was always in contact with families and children and parents and teachers, because I realised that what we were doing at the academic level was extremely important because you need the evidence and you need to really understand what’s going on. But at the same time what was missing in Ireland was the communication of this information to parents and the engagement of parents. And I found more and more with my research that parents would come to me even though I wasn’t there to be providing advice. But they came to me with very clear questions, which are the typical questions that all of us as parents have about, you know, am I doing the right thing? Is this the right time to introduce a language and so on and so forth? And as a parent myself, I suppose I’ve gone through it and my oldest child now is 12 almost. So I’ve seen all of the stages of language development, I suppose, until this age. And it’s definitely not easy to be in an English-speaking country where the majority of people are using English. Some of them use Irish, but it’s quite rare. But English is such a strong and dominant language in our environment, that even in my family I found it very difficult to keep up Italian and to motivate the children over the years. So I wear all of the hats that I have different perspectives I suppose, which I feel is what has made maybe Mother Tongues so diverse and so eclectic in the kind of work that we do because we engage with everybody. So we’re listening to all of the perspectives.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And I think it’s a very useful combination to have both the parent and the professional view on on raising bilingual children. Right. I see that, too, because, you know, it’s very easy to say, oh, from the on the basis of the research children do whatever it is they’re supposed to do, they do mix or they don’t mix or whatever. But then when you actually witness it yourself happening in front of you, either, as you know from the research base, you know, from the research findings or doing something that you think you’re not supposed to do that, that gives you that insight into what is the more practical side of things, right? So the combining the practice and the theory I think is very, very useful.

Francesca La Morgia: Absolutely. There is a lot to be said about having, I suppose, the knowledge or having, you know, being up to date with the research. But there is quite a lot of conversations that I have that I think are based on the confidence of parents. So parents don’t actually ask for the latest paper or, you know, it’s quite rare. You know, there would be parents who want to know, well, is this based on anything which I feel is very important to know. But also it’s about the confidence because quite a few parents who attend their events or come to the webinars or come to the language explorers, then they go home and they say, what this did for me was it boosting my confidence because I saw others doing what I’m doing. I realized what I’m doing is fine. I realized all I need is to maybe kind of add a couple of hours every week and doing something fun with my child. I feel that it’s uplifting for a lot of parents to actually learn about bilingualism, multilingualism, because what they gain is confidence in parenting, which I never thought of it, you know, from before I had children, I never really saw it this way. But then afterwards, of course, as a parent, you’re always looking for the best way because you want the best for your children no matter what.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a really nice way of looking at it. The building of confidence. So so you mentioned before that Mother Tongues also has a range of programmes. And I know one thing that you also have, which I don’t think you mentioned before, is the festival, the Mother Tongues Festival. Can you ll us a bit more about that? Because I think it’s really interesting what you’re doing combining multilingualism with the arts.

Francesca La Morgia: I think this feeds well into our idea of confidence and the participation of parents and various different stakeholders because in a way the idea of setting up the festival came when we wanted to do an event around International Mother Language Day and we wanted to this festival, this event to be for children and young people. And that’s when we decided, okay, well, children are going to love singing, dancing, poetry and the rest. And what I saw in Dublin, but it’s probably the reality in a lot of other places, is that the weekend schools or the Saturday schools, if you like, they all happen more or less on a Saturday morning for the majority of schools, and they’re scattered all over the country. They’re scattered even in Dublin, they’re scattered all over the city. So children know, okay, I’m going to Polish school at the weekend and I’m doing a lot of fun stuff, but they don’t know who else is doing what and maybe their next-door neighbour is going to Italian school at the weekend. And it’s quite isolating to realize that everybody’s raising their children bilingually in their own houses, with their own challenges, of course. And the children may not see how common this experience is. And that was the initial idea of saying, let’s do a festival and let’s involve artists or actually speakers of the same languages as the children. So this was just a nutshell of the idea. Over the years this has become quite a large arts festival, so I won’t go into the step-by-step process. But the really interesting thing over the years is that there is a huge amount of interest in this kind of festival, The program has extended, so now it’s also for adults and the idea is really purely to have a range of events, workshops, concerts that are led either bilingually or in a language other than English. And that includes the Irish language, of course. So the child, the family, they come in and they can experience Japanese origami, but it’s in Japanese. So you’re immediately experiencing the language, the culture together because it’s easy enough to say, yes, origami is a originally a craft and an art from Japan, and there’s a whole story behind each and every part of what you do, how you do it. Someone can explain it to you, but in that context, you’re also immersed in the language. And for children who are growing up speaking Japanese, for example, they’ll see their teacher, they’ll see the person who is teaching everybody, themselves and their friends who is up there, kind of they see that as a role model. And in schools in Ireland, you don’t have teachers who come from any other ethnic background, really, or linguistic background. It’s very rare for even for a teacher to have even have grown up bilingually. There is certain barriers to accessing primary teacher training or even if you’re trained elsewhere, it’s quite unlikely you will become a primary school teacher in Ireland. So the festival also does that. It makes it fun, it makes the languages enjoyable, and also it takes them away from the home, takes them away from the Saturday school, it puts them in a public space. And I think that’s also really important. When something happens in a library, in a museum, in a gallery, then suddenly for the child, the language is not what my mummy speaks. But it’s got a broader value, it’s got a more universal value. And it’s, you know, even if you’re a child, you understand this, maybe you cannot verbalize it, but you can see it, you can feel it. So it is really important. And art is important in this because your limitless in the possibilities of what can be done with the language. And I found over the years, even though I feel I have a lot of ideas, having worked a lot and having researched a lot, I feel, oh, I have millions of ideas, but when I talk to an artist about these ideas, the artist makes them into something that I couldn’t have imagine myself. So I find that to be also so open-ended that that’s why I feel art is important for us from a methodology point of view, and it’s important for the children to experience it in that way.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I’m curious to know then you mentioned the empowering experience that it can be for multilingual children to see a teacher speak in their language, to see their language outside of their home or outside of the language school, Saturday school, the heritage language school. How about the children who don’t speak that language? How did they experience, for example, learning about origami in Japanese?

Francesca La Morgia: They think it’s fun. They think it’s just something new. And we don’t know exactly what goes on in their mind. But you can see their faces for sure. There are at times children who are completely shocked when they’re were walking in there, walking into a room. And it’s like, what? What are they saying? You know? And in every single one of these contexts, there’s always someone who can translate for you, who can help you along the way. You know, it’s not like, oh, sorry. If you don’t understand your loss.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Francesca La Morgia: But at the same time, even with the Language Explorers, when we walk into a classroom and we might have an artist who speaks Polish and starts to tell a story in Polish, you see the reaction of the children. And it’s never disrespectful. It’s always a reaction of curiosity. And sometimes it’s like, oh, I feel a bit lost. And I asked the children, you know, how did you feel when this person was speaking and you couldn’t understand? And some children are really sensitive to this and they say, I felt a little bit scared or I felt weird. Weird is a word that children use a lot sometimes and I say, what does that mean? And then I say, how do you think a child feels when they’re new to the school? And suddenly the children understand and they already know. They already know. So we’re only just discussing it. But they they kind of raise, we raise an additional level of awareness of what it’s like to be in a place where you don’t understand what people say. to be a child joins a school where you don’t know yet what’s going on and all children develop further empathy towards other languages, towards other, obviously it’s not just the language, it’s the speakers of these languages. But also I think the curiosity aspect is really important. There is this concern that maybe 70% of children have another language at home and what happens to the rest of the children? Are they going to enjoy these activities as much as everyone else? And every single thing that we do? We try or we try, we we plan it so that every child has space to discuss, to to ask questions. And there’s an exercise or an activity for everybody, whether it’s about you speaking your own language or whether it’s about you teaming up with the person sitting next to you translating something from Swahili to Irish, you see. And the plan for everything that we do is made so that no matter how many languages you speak, the program is for you. The idea is not to see multilingualism as a problem for multilingualism. It’s to see multilingualism as an enrichment of the whole society, and especially for people who are a little bit sceptical of our languages and what’s the purpose. And this is going to be hard just to switch that narrative and to say actually, languages, multilingualism, it’s not just languages, it’s culture, it’s an understanding of how people interact and behave. So they’re part of our living together because Ireland is multilingual and there’s nothing we can change about that.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I think that will be reassuring to say, for example, teachers who are thinking about, oh, that sounds like an interesting idea, incorporating other languages or activities relating to the languages in the classroom. But what about the kids who don’t speak those languages, who don’t speak any language other than the ones spoken at school? Do you maybe have other tips for teachers about how you can perhaps integrate, bring in multilingualism into the classroom using arts, in particular arts and culture?

Francesca La Morgia: Art itself is a subject in in school and even though it means many, many different things. But the fact that the common language is non-linguistic if you like, so it can be collage, it can be music, it can be dance. This puts everybody in a position where everybody is on the same level. So then the language and the multilingual aspect is the second layer, but it doesn’t stop everyone from enjoying this. So it’s almost as if you you use art as a way for every child to express themselves. And then there are children who might be wanting to use five languages in this kind of art piece, who might want to share their words. Or they might want if, you know, if you do a drama exercise, they might want to say shout out a word in their own mother tongue. But in the building of these experiences, there are many ideas that teachers can use to teach all the children of the class these key words from the languages of the class, so that every child can say, you know, I don’t speak Spanish, but over these last six months, I’ve learned 30 words of Spanish. So when the time comes and I need to shout, I will shout a word in Spanish, even though it’s not my mother tongue, so that everyone feels that they have words in more than one language, so that they feel that they own that language. And not to focus on the fact that to say that you speak a language, you need to at least be able to converse and to be able to have, you know, to order something in a restaurant. I think we have to start from a different perspective. It’s like we’re what do we know? Not what do we not know? Because if we look at what we don’t know, it’s too daunting. And there are examples in our own teacher body when we ask teachers themselves, what do you do? Because they come up with fantastic ideas and there are teachers who actually just simply every single day they do roll call. And the roll call is, you know, people answer, “I’m here”, usually in Ireland, it’s anseo because it’s in Irish, but you can answer in Irish or you can answer in any other language. But one of the teachers told us that children now mix it up, so they don’t always reply in their own language or in their mother tongue, or here they just pick up the anseo of another child. So someone who is a native speaker of Polish may decide on any given day to reply to the roll call in Japanese because that’s the sound they like that it’s a word that sounds different from theirs and they want to try it out. So that’s what I’m trying to to get across, is that once you merge all of these languages, once you bring them out into the open, then children are free to do what they want with them, you know.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. It’s almost giving them the freedom and the ownership of their own multilingualism, whatever that means, right?

Francesca La Morgia: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: To them. Yeah. And what about tips for parents then, when it comes to, for example, incorporating arts activities into promoting or fostering multilingualism within the family, have you got any tips for us there?

Francesca La Morgia: I suppose when I say art or maybe arts and culture, I would just extend it a bit further.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.

Francesca La Morgia: Just in case people think, oh, well, it’s painting. You know, I’m talking really broadly about creativity and creative expression and language itself is one of the most interesting forms of creative expression as well. So if you’re a parent and you’re trying to keep, you know, trying and probably succeed in keeping up your language, you will know pretty much what your child is passionate about. And in a way, exploring other avenues like music and dance is is always a good idea. But whenever I speak to parents, I always say, What do your children love doing that is practical, that is not homework, that is not like necessarily sitting down reading and writing to boost the language. But what is it that they enjoy doing where they can express themselves and they can use language? So in a way I find, for example, singing together, writing songs together, writing comic books depending on the ages, of course, if you’re looking at a very young child, it might be songs and movement. But again, even associating certain rhymes, certain words with a movement, can also help in the very early years. Once children are a little bit older, something that I found children to to be interested in is comic books. And part of this, I think, is because the language of comic books is simpler than the language of novels, but also because you have the visuals that support your understanding of the story. So especially for children who might have their heritage language might be less dominant, it could be useful to have something like a comic book, but you can write your own comic book. So then again, you’re illustrating it. You’re thinking of a story. You’re.. maybe you can design two different endings and get your family to vote, which can be the best ending for your story. So there’s plenty that can be done. But I would say I don’t know if it’s a tip, but it’s something that I found useful for myself is to follow what children are interested in. Because if what I’m trying to do is to convince them that my language is relevant for them to be relevant, it has to be something that they think is relevant to them, not what I think is relevant. And so it’s about exploring what they’re going through at the moment. And arts can be a very good way for self-expression as well.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. So letting your children take the lead as well, I guess, rather than thinking that you have to do it as a parent.

Francesca La Morgia: Absolutely.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Great. So you’ve told us about all the wonderful initiatives, activities, programmes that you are running from Mother Tongues in Ireland. What does the future look like for multilingual children growing up in Ireland?

Francesca La Morgia: I feel it looks positive because I see progress, because I’ve been here quite a long time. So I definitely have seen plenty of changes. I’ve seen an incredible change in the teachers, to be honest, in really embedding multilingualism in their day to day, providing information for parents in different languages. And I’ve seen it in the last five or six years. For the children, I think now there is a much better understanding of the fact that multilingualism is not only for expats or people from foreign countries, but it’s for everyone. And quite for a long time it seemed to be a problem for someone who needed to deal with it in their own right, in their own terms, because it wasn’t our problem, if you like. But now I can see a shift in understanding that it is not a problem, first of all. It is an enrichment for all of us. So I am really excited to see that now, for example, libraries are doing storytelling in different languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Francesca La Morgia: This has only happened in the last two or three years. There are festival programs that have multilingual poetry, so I’m seeing slow but visible change, so I’m quite positive.

Sharon Unsworth: Good. I think that positive note is a good way to end our conversation. Thanks ever so much, Francesca, for taking the time to talk to us today. It’s been a pleasure, as always.

Francesca La Morgia: Thank you.

Sharon Unsworth: So that was it for this final episode of the season. Thanks to Francesca for taking the time to talk to us and thanks once again to all the guests who have joined me from around the world in this second season of Kletsheads. We’re going to be taking a break for a while now. In the meantime, take a look at the back catalog. If you haven’t done so already, there are 21 other episodes besides this one. And keep in touch with us via social media. You can find us in all the usual places @Kletsheads. To be honest, I haven’t completely decided if and when I’ll make a third season. But if you’ve got suggestions for new episodes, let me know and I’ll put them on the list. Thanks a lot for listening. Take care. And until the next time.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.

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