Multilingualism brings communities closer together

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Learning their community language outside the home enhances minority ethnic children's development, according to research led from the University of Birmingham. The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that attending language classes at complementary schools has a positive impact on students. 

Complementary schools provide out-of-school-hours community language learning for children and young people from minority groups. They aim to develop students' multilingualism, strengthen the link between home and the community, and connect them with wider social networks. The study found that the parents believed that bilingualism had economic benefits for their children as it improved their chances of success in the global jobs market.

According to Angela Creese, Prof of Educational Linguistics, who led the research, there is a growing interest in complementary schools because they are unique, offering students the opportunity to develop their verbal and written language skills across a variety of languages. 'It is rare to find an environment where two or more languages are used in teaching and learning,' she explains. 'Teachers and young people move between languages, and our findings show that the children are proud of their flexible language skills. One Turkish boy told us he was learning four languages and loved being able to show off to his friends.'

The research builds on an earlier study of complementary schools in Leicester that found significant evidence of the value of these schools. Consisting of linked case studies of schools serving four of Britain's linguistic minority communities, the study focused on Bengali schools in Birmingham, Chinese schools in Manchester, Gujarati schools in Leicester, and Turkish schools in London. It explored the social, cultural and linguistic significance of these schools in their communities and in wider society. 

The findings highlight the general view among minority communities that children need to study language, heritage and culture at school rather than in isolation at home. A Chinese parent told the researchers that children who were taught by private tutors had a limited experience: 'They need to learn with other kids, to see how other children learn, their attitudes and so on. Then they can decide for themselves what kind of person they should be.'

The research team found that, for students in complementary schools, being bilingual is associated with contemporary, cosmopolitan identities. Students often see themselves as 'successful learners' as well as 'multicultural' and 'bilingual', the report says. 'Teachers and students alike see the complementary schools as places where they can develop multicultural, multilingual identities', says Prof Creese.

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on 'Investigating multilingualism in complementary schools in four communities' RES-000-23-1180 and was funded by ESRC. The research was conducted by Angela Creese, Taskin Baraç, Arvind Bhatt, Adrian Blackledge, Shahela Hamid, Li Wei, Vally Lytra, Peter Martin, Chao-Jung Wu, Dilek Yagcioglu-Ali.
  2. The schools are run by volunteers and provide community language classes at weekends or in the evening, often using the rented premises of state schools. Pupil numbers at the schools ranged from 20-350, and the age of the students from 6-16+ years. In every case, parents were actively involved in school activities and saw the language classes as an opportunity to broaden their network of contacts. 
  3. The findings are based on interviews, observations, audio- and video-recordings, and informal conversations in four linked case studies in complementary schools. These included two Bengali schools in Birmingham, two Chinese schools in Manchester, two Gujarati schools in Leicester and two Turkish schools in London. Data were collected simultaneously and shared by the full team over a 10-week period. The results are based on data collected from interviews, observation, audio- and video-recordings and photographs during 400 hours of fieldwork covering classrooms and assemblies, staff meetings, parent meetings and extra-mural activities. Children in each school were audio-recorded before, during and after lessons over a period of six weeks. Teachers, coordinators and parents were also interviewed in depth.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £123 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow.  
  5. The ESRC website offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. 
  6. This research was graded as 'outstanding'.