skip to content

For staff


Set up last year, the Cambridge Bilingualism Network is bringing the latest research on the “gift of bilingualism”  into local classrooms

When Cambridge linguist Dr Theodora (Dora) Alexopoulou was told at a parents’ evening that her bilingual child’s vocabulary was lagging behind those of his monolingual peers, it set her thinking.

As a linguist, she knew bilingualism brought many benefits to children. But as a mother, she wondered whether parents and teachers needed more support to nurture that gift.

“I’m Greek and my husband is from Argentina,” she Dora. “My kids were born here and we speak to them in Spanish and Greek. But when our son started school his teacher said that because he has English as an additional language, his vocabulary was behind the other kids.”

“At the same meeting, the teacher told me seven other kids – one third of the class – were also bilingual, so I thought they had probably been told the same thing, and that it was worth having a proper discussion with parents and teachers about these issues.”

That thought was the genesis of the Cambridge Bilingualism Network, set up in 2010 by Dora and her colleagues in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics to raise awareness among schools, teachers and parents of the benefits of growing up speaking more than one language.

“A lot of our department’s research focuses on how children – including bilingual children – learn languages, but we can’t do that without talking to teachers and parents about what it means to raise bilingual children,” she explains.

Everyone agrees that bilingualism brings many benefits, from cultural and social to economic and cognitive. “Of course it’s fantastic for a child, through languages, to have access to more than one culture,” says Dora.

But allied to these social advantages, and the possible economic benefits later in life of speaking more than one language, are the cognitive advantages bilingualism also brings.

“These advantages result from constantly speaking and managing two linguistic systems,” she explains. An established body of psycholinguistic research shows that so-called executive functions – those that control attention, memory and cognitive flexibility – are enhanced in children brought up learning more than one language.

Faced, for example, with the word “red” presented in green text, bilingual children are quicker to manipulate these conflicting cues. They are also more adept at understanding what linguists call “conversational maxims”, or rules of conversation, such as the ability to provide the right amount of information when answering a question, or to observe conventions about politeness.

According to Dora: “This is because in their everyday lives bilingual kids are constantly having to choose between one language and another. This gives them a cognitive advantage and explains why any pair of human languages helps develop these mental gymnastics. And because they are not only managing two linguistic systems but are also making all sorts of decisions about which language to speak to whom, they are much more tuned in to what’s going on in a conversation,” she says.

In schools, however, these benefits may be less apparent than a child’s vocabulary, which assessed in English often reveals a deficit in bilingual children.

“It’s true that bilingual children’s English vocabulary is lower than in monolingual kids, and that’s true even if they are exposed to English from their pre-school years,” Dora explains.

“But they catch up, and the most important thing to appreciate is that this has nothing to do with these kids’ ability to learn vocabulary. If anything, bilingual kids probably know more words than their monolingual peers; it’s just that this vocabulary comes from two languages.”

All of which can be a concern for parents of bilingual children, and a challenge to their teachers. “This is why working with parents through schools and teachers is central to the Bilingualism Information Network’s strategy”, says Dr Napoleon Katsos, network co-founder and coordinator.

Rated outstanding in its last OFSTED report, which singled out provision for those learning English as an additional language as “exemplary”, Arbury Primary School is one the first schools to work with the network. And key to that relationship is Year two class teacher and county leading teacher Kathy Whiting, whose work at Arbury includes overseeing support for bilingual learners.

Remembering her first meeting with Dora at a bilingualism event at a neighbouring school, Kathy says: “I was blown away by the talk. It was fantastic, and I felt so inspired that I came back and talked to other staff at Arbury about the benefits of bilingualism.”

At Arbury Primary, where 26 languages are spoken in addition to English, and 37 per cent of children are bilingual, Kathy finds the network’s support invaluable. “As a school, we need to be thinking all the time about how we are supporting our children who are new to English or bilingual,” she says.

Without such support, children can lose their home language – either when they start school or when their English takes over. “We’ve been through a period where families think that because they have moved to England they should just speak English,” Kathy explains. “As a teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to persuade parents not to ditch their home language, so having Dora come in to speak to parents backs me up.”

The risk of losing the home language can increase once a bilingual child’s English improves, Dora adds. “As kids become more articulate in the dominant language, which is English, it becomes a challenge to maintain their bilingualism because they many not want to speak the home language.”

As a result, schools play a crucial role in celebrating bilingualism, and supporting parents to do the same at home.

“Schools make great efforts to integrate children from different cultures, but when it comes to bilingualism, there’s less knowledge and fewer explicit strategies. Schools try to be inclusive at the socio-cultural level but not in linguistic development,” says Dora.

So there are important lessons to be learned from Arbury’s success. “School has a role to make the home language visible. Even though we’re not teaching Spanish or Bangladeshi, we encourage children to tell us if they are bilingual, to teach the class to count in that language. Then they’re out and proud about it,” Kathy says. “And because it makes our teaching so inclusive, it makes our teaching better.”

The take-home message for parents is that children need the richest possible linguistic experience in both English and the home language. “Our message is do both as much as you can, and do lots of reading in the home language,” says Kathy.

The researchers too are benefiting from taking their work into the community. “For me, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” says Dora. Her colleague Napoleon agrees: “I'm actually engaging with real life and that's refreshing. You also get good research ideas. By working with the Cambridgeshire Race Equality and Diversity Service we’ve realised that compared with young children and adult bilingualism less is known about older primary school children who arrive in this country with no English. And because of European mobility, this is increasingly prevalent,” he adds.

In Europe, where bilingualism is perceived as an oddity, it’s worth remembering that globally it is a norm. “Two thirds of children in the world are bilingual,” Dora says. “So we shouldn’t think of bilingualism as some exception – it’s just new to Europe but normal around the world.”

Which is why in a continent where education systems are geared towards monolingualism, the network’s role is vital. “If you want languages to grow, you need to nurture them,” says Dora. “Our message is that it’s worth making the effort and nurturing this gift your child has.”

As well as working with local schools, the Cambridge Bilingualism Network also organises open workshops where experts in specific areas of bilingualism present research outcomes to the general public. For more information,visit

[Caption for second picture]
Parents and teachers sometimes worry that bilingual children know fewer English words than their monolingual peers. While this may be true for a limited period of time, they catch up and, if they maintain their home language, have two vocabularies to draw from.


31 January 2013