From bilingualism to multilingualism: promoting language learning in Wales

Word cloud of languages spoken by attendees

Multilingual Cymru conference brought together academics, teachers, policy makers and practitioners to discuss the future of multilingualism in Wales. 

In Wales we have long prided ourselves on bilingualism and its importance to culture and identity, as well as the linguistic skills it nurtures and the research excellence it has developed. But what of multilingualism? Increasingly, Welsh and British society doesn’t include just one or two languages, but dozens, living and evolving alongside each other.

So, as we face an ever-looming challenge in terms of falling numbers of language learners across the UK, how can the linguistic skills and resources that already exist within our communities help us to promote multilingualism?

On Wednesday 6 November, the #MultilingualCymru conference saw a sold-out room of around 60 delegates, speaking over a dozen different languages, coming together to discuss this topic.

The day was co-hosted by the Schools of Modern Languages and School of Welsh at Cardiff University. Special thanks go to Creative Multilingualism and both Schools for funding the conference.

Why did we need a multilingualism conference in Wales?

In both research and practice, there is scope for the fields of bilingualism and multilingualism in Wales to become more aligned, learning from one another. Our vision for the conference was to showcase good practice, share ideas, and to come up with new initiatives to start looking at languages in a more integrated way.

Conference organisers

As three Cardiff University doctoral students, by organising the conference we aimed not only to draws links between our own fields of research, but also our academic schools and a wider community of researchers and practitioners from the fields of bilingualism and multilingualism in Wales and beyond.

The conference was organised at an important time for curriculum reform in Wales as the new Draft Curriculum for Wales 2022 nears its final planning stages. The new curriculum lays the groundwork for the learning and teaching of Welsh, English and International Languages to come together under a joint Area of Learning and Experience (AOLE): Languages, Literacy and Communication.

On the day

A range of speakers joined us on the day to provide valuable experience and ideas of how languages co-exist and can support mutual learning across the UK.​ The talks were conducted through the medium of Welsh and/or English.

Professor Kate Griffiths, Head of Cardiff University School of Modern Languages, and Professor Dylan Foster Evans, Head of Cardiff University School of Welsh, opened the event.

Our first keynote speaker, Professor Mererid Hopwood, presented different aspects of multilingual learning in Wales. She has spent most of her career teaching languages and literature and is now a Professor at ‘Yr Athrofa’, the Institute of Education at University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. Her captivating, bilingual presentation looked at the constant decline of language learning in Wales and creative ways of reversing it.

Professor Mererid Hopwood

Dr Cassie Smith-Christmas from NUI Galway introduced the concept of intergenerational language transmission in her keynote talk. She vividly described the case study families of her research projects that look at the linguistic experiences of families that speak a minority language in Ireland and Scotland.

Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas

After lunch and a poster exhibition our final keynote speaker, Professor Tess Fitzpatrick, identified the main obstacles and enablers of multilingualism in terms of societal, pedagogical and psychological factors.

Professor Tess Fitzpatrick

The PGR/ECR panel, chaired by Dr Jonathan Morris, introduced different perspectives of multilingualism in the UK. Swansea University PhD student Tesni Galvin talked about her research on predictive processing of gender constructions in Welsh-English bilinguals. Dr Anna Havinga from Bristol University currently works on a project which aims to improve MFL uptake by bringing about a change in the curriculum. Finally, Dr Lucy Rayfield's presentation dealt with a translation project of Dante’s Inferno into Welsh.

The PGR/ECR panel members Dr Lucy Rayfield, Tesni Galvin and Dr Anna Havinga

The afternoon workshops looked at three separate areas of multilingualism from the very start in the home, through compulsory education and into higher education. The workshops showcased examples of current multilingual projects that are running in schools and universities around Wales, such as Routes into Languages Cymru and MFL Student Mentoring.

What next?

To close the conference Professor Claire Gorrara chaired a ‘Where next?’ session that gave delegates the opportunity to reflect on the day and propose ideas for how to develop future initiatives and collaboration. The session produced a variety of ideas and initiatives that we hope to explore further, including: an international conference to share best practice across European countries, a repository of multilingualism projects, a follow up event, and the need for increased networking for different agencies, academics and professionals to promote a multilingual Wales.

While these ideas will take time and funding to develop, we are currently involved in a few new multilingualism initiatives at Cardiff University. One of these initiatives is a multilingualism research group, due to launch in January 2020. The group is open to everyone who has an interest in psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, and sociological aspects of using or learning more than one language in the home, in the education system, and in the community.

Multilingual Cymru was fully booked within days — we believe that this is a sign for a need of more cooperation and discussion around the subject of multilingualism.

We’d like to extend a big thank you to all our speakers, panellists, chairs and workshop organisers for their engaging contributions, and to everyone who attended and added to the interesting discussions on the day.

You can see the tweets from the day on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #MultilingualCymru.

Elin Arfon, Eira Jepson and Kaisa Pankakoski

Elin Arfon is a first year PhD student at the School of Modern Languages, Cardiff University. Her PhD aims to explore how secondary school students’ plurilingualism can be recognised through assessment and 14-16 qualifications provision in Wales.

Eira Jepson is a second year PhD student at the School of Modern Languages, Cardiff University. Her research explores the influence of language outreach initiatives on pupils’ motivation to study languages other than English and Welsh in schools in Wales. 

Kaisa Pankakoski is a research student at Cardiff University School of Welsh. Her research looks at trilingual case study families’ strategies and experiences of language transmission in two officially bilingual areas: Helsinki and Cardiff.

Main image: word cloud shows languages spoken by conference attendees.

Where next?

Language learning: immersion was my answer

Unleashing the creative potential of linguistic diversity in our classrooms

Translanguaging has made it to Scottish primary education and it is alive and 'coleando'!