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Cambridge Language Sciences

Interdisciplinary Research Centre
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A review funded by the Cambridge Language Sciences Incubator Fund and recently published in the International Journal of Bilingualism, highlights the positive link between bilingualism and children’s well-being.

The review on Bilingualism in the Family and Child Well-being is part of an ongoing collaboration between Dr Napoleon Katsos (Theoretical and Applied Linguistics) and Dr Jenny Gibson (Education), and was co-authored by Dr Lisa-Maria Müller, Katie Howard (Theoretical and Applied Linguistics) and Dr Elspeth Wilson (Education). It is the first on this topic to look beyond the European context as well as across disciplines – including applied and clinical linguistics, family studies, education and psychology.

The question of how speaking more than one language affects family and child wellbeing is particularly relevant given the UK’s rich linguistic diversity[1], and in light of growing mental health issues among adolescents. This survey therefore has potentially important implications for family language policy particularly regarding decisions about language use in the home.

If parents are aware of the connection between children’s minority language knowledge and their well-being, this might affect decisions regarding which language(s) to speak with their children. Likewise, practitioners such as health visitors and other professionals should adopt a holistic approach to helping families navigate family language choices, thinking not only of linguistic outcomes, but also relational ones. On the other hand, those concerned primarily with well-being also need to take into consideration linguistic identity, and in particular bilingual language use.”

Extract from Bilingualism in the Family and Child Well-being: a scoping review, Müller et al., International Journal of Bilingualism, Sage, June 2020

Two key themes emerge in the review – the effect of language proficiency on family relationships, and the acculturation (the extent to which individuals identify with the majority culture) of parents and children as mediated by language. Overall, the research indicates that bilingualism and maintaining minority language(s) have a positive impact on family relationships and children’s wellbeing.

The findings of these studies… suggest that children’s knowledge of their minority language improved family cohesion, led to less emotional stress and was important on a pragmatic level but also improved children’s understanding of their cultural heritage. Furthermore, rather than minority language proficiency alone, balanced proficiency in both the minority and the majority language appear to be important for child well-being as knowledge of both languages allows children to communicate successfully and develop relationships across contexts.” (ibid.)

The survey also opens up a number of questions for further research which would help identify mediating factors between bilingualism and well-being, like language attitudes, identity formation, emotional development and cultural differences. This could include investigation into which aspects of language proficiency are most important – such as production versus comprehension, or spoken versus written language – as well as the importance of relative proficiencies of family members and the contexts inside or outside the home where languages are spoken.

Dr Elspeth Wilson, one of the co-authors of the report explains:

Over 2017, we ran three workshops bringing together practitioners, community representatives, and researchers across a whole range of disciplines (including linguistics, education, psychology) to explore the connections between speaking more than one language and well-being. It became clear that there were strong theoretical connections, anecdotal evidence and emerging research about how multilingualism and well-being interact, but consolidating what we know and setting out a future research agenda in a scoping review was an essential next step. Alongside this research, we also developed an exciting public engagement project, We Speak Multi, in collaboration with antenatal practitioners, to put into practice some of our findings and benefit the multilingual community."

[1] 1 in 5 children in primary schools in England speak a language other than English at home (Department for Education / National Office of Statistics), and over 300 different languages are spoken in London alone (2011 Census)

The full review is available here:

Related resources:

We Speak Multi Project

Workshop report on multilingualism and well-being in UK

Bilingualism in the Family and Child Well-being: a scoping review was funded by the Cambridge Language Sciences Incubator Fund project, Multilingualism and subjective wellbeing in the family: a systematic review led by Dr Napoleon Katsos (Theoretical & Applied Linguistics), Dr Jenny Gibson (Education), and co-authored by Dr Lisa-Maria Müller, Katie Howard and Dr Elspeth Wilson. The project initially emerged through a series of ESRC IAA funded researcher-practitioner forums run by the Cambridge Bilingualism Network.

What we do

Cambridge Language Sciences is an Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Our virtual network connects researchers from five schools across the university as well as other world-leading research institutions. Our aim is to strengthen research collaborations and knowledge transfer across disciplines in order to address large-scale multi-disciplinary research challenges relating to language research.