Multilingual children in the British Foster Care system

[…] it was quite heartbreaking watching this child over the period of about three years, going from a very loving little boy with his mom, to the point where he just kept saying, I don’t understand you. […] the mother couldn’t understand the child, the child couldn’t understand the mother. And after a while, the child wanted to go, but didn’t want to go. Still wanted to spend time with the mom, but I think that child then became really, really confused. […] It was a very sort of artificial conversation. […] it just didn’t feel natural at all to her to be having a conversation in English. And when she couldn’t have the natural flow of conversation, the child would just sort of move away.

Interpreter for supervised meetings of foster child and birth mother
who is the focus of this project?

This project is for young people who are growing up multilingual in England. Many children speak a language other than English at home (according to the 2021 census, over 100 languages other than English are used by about 5 million people, this is almost 10% of British homes). Often, these children grow up not having any support for their family language outside their home. Others may even bully or look down on these children for speaking a language other than English, or for having a ‘foreign’ accent. Some young people are even at risk of losing their family language completely, particularly if they do not grow up with their birth parents. 

What does this mean for young people? 

Children who forget their family language may no longer be able to form meaningful connections with their parents, caregivers, or wider family (in particular grandparents back in the country of origin). This is especially true for refugee children, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs), and children in foster care, who can go a long time without hearing or speaking their family language. The result is that they may struggle to express themselves in their family language, communicate with their parents, grandparents or wider family, or feel like they belong. If or when they are to be reunited with their caregivers, this can pose serious challenges.

What will this project do?

To raise awareness of young people growing up multilingual and give them a voice, I have created a short online survey where children and adults (who have also grown up multilingual in England) can anonymously share their experiences and opinions. I hope to discover the best type of support we can offer, and, most importantly, draw meaningful recommendations for policymakers!

About Me

I am a 2nd year PhD candidate conducting my research at the University of York, under the supervision of Prof. Monika Schmid. I research how children and young people experience language attrition in a multilingual environment. For my MA dissertation, I conducted a study of language provision for multilingual children in the British foster system. I am especially interested to learn what encourages or discourages young people to learn and maintain their heritage or minority home language as they are growing up.

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