By Lydia Gunning
Funded by a Leeds Academic Research Scholarship (LARS) and the Bradford Institute of Health Research (BIHR), my project works closely with schools associated with the Born in Bradford cohort (BiB) (https://borninbradford.nhs.uk/). This group is particularly interesting for linguistic study due to both the high numbers of bilinguals in the community and the notably low SES within the city as a whole. However, despite the interesting make-up of this group, and the substantial effects these two variables have been shown to have on language development, there has yet to be any research conducted looking at the language profile of this cohort. This, in part, is likely due to limited resources available that can comprehensively assess language development. Many language assessments currently in distribution either do not allow for a complete assessment of language (focussing only on a specific area), are not standardised in the UK, do not allow for the assessment of primary school aged children, or do not give standardised scores for monolinguals and bilinguals alike. Given that approximately a quarter of children in any particular class in the UK identify as being bilingual, a tool that could quickly screen for any language difficulties, while taking into consideration the number of languages a child might speak, would be highly valuable.
Thus, to sufficiently assess the language development of BiB children, or children similar to those in the BiB cohort, my research aims to develop a fully comprehensive language battery that can overcome the barriers mentioned above. Consequently, the battery can be used to screen for atypical language development in both monolingual and bilingual populations, but will also help further distinguish differences between abilities of these two groups. Once finalised, the battery will allow assessment of core language skills, such as receptive language (the ability to understand language) and expressive language (the ability to produce language), as well as phonological awareness (the ability to manipulate language). It will also identify any deficits in pragmatics; the social use of language.
Measuring a bilingual’s language competence becomes increasingly difficult due to the abundance of research suggesting that the amount, type and context of exposure to language can all affect proficiency. Consequently, exposure to languages must be taken into consideration when studying bilinguals and this is especially true if bilinguals are to be studied alongside their monolingual peers. Although there are various language exposure questionnaires already in distribution that might allow measurement of the extent to which language ability relies on linguistic exposure, many of these rely on parental report, which often has feasibility issues within research. A secondary aim of the project is thus to develop a way of quantifying a bilingual’s language experience without relying on the, often elusive, parental report. For this reason, we developed the Leeds Bilingual Exposure Questionnaires (LeBEQ). Comprising of two separate questionnaires, one to be completed by the child themselves, the other to be completed by their teacher, the LeBEQ attempts to determine the extent of a child’s bilingualism, based on exposure to the languages in question. Factors included were those that research has repeatedly shown to affect a bilingual’s language development, such as length of exposure, cumulative exposure, contexts of use, birth order and language used in various activities (reading, playing games etc.).
Though the pragmatic components of the battery are still being developed, and the data for the LeBEQ and core language components is still being collected and analysed, my research eventually attempts to shed light on questions such as: (1) precisely how, and to what extent, linguistic experience affects language development, (2) how this might be complicated by an overlying layer of poor SES and (3) the effect these variables have on a child’s resultant academic attainment.