2018 Conference – Teaching Chinese in multilingual environments


The 2018 Annual Chinese Teaching Conference will take place on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th June. The Conference will host a range of teaching workshops as well as plenaries on different subjects, including bilingualism. Dr. Thomas Bak from the University of Edinburgh will present a Conference plenary entitled ‘The Benefits of Bilingualism’. Dr. Bak is a cognitive neuroscientist who speaks four languages regularly, gives talks in seven and can read in 10. His research covers many areas of bilingualism and focuses on the effects that learning more than one language has on cognitive function. In anticipation of the Conference, we spoke with Dr. Bak about what his plenary would cover in terms of bilingualism and Chinese language learning.

THBak PhotoConsidering Dr. Bak’s background with languages in his professional career, it is understandable how highly he regards the importance of all languages. But it is Dr. Bak’s multilingual daughter, Alba, that gives him first hand experience of how young people view and interact with different languages. Dr. Bak’s five year old daughter speaks not only English, but also her father’s native Polish and her mother’s native Spanish, and the anecdotes about his daughter, which will feature during Dr. Bak’s Conference plenary, help to explain children’s natural rather than cultivated curiosity about languages.
This natural curiosity of young people towards languages should be harnessed in school children learning any language, particularly a language such as Chinese, which is often viewed as completely different to European languages. Dr. Bak explains that young people, through their natural curiosity, should come to their own conclusions about similarities between languages, rather than seeing certain languages as the opposites of each other. Chinese and English are two languages with a lot of differences, but the similarities are the fundamental element for an English-speaking learner of Chinese (and vice versa). Grammatical similarities between English and Chinese should be introduced to learners of Chinese in the UK to put their language learning into context.

Alba learning Chinese

Dr Bak’s daughter, Alba, learning Chinese         (Photo by Murdo MacLeod)

When learning a language, contextualising it in terms of your own language is vital; creating a common ground between languages allows familiarity with the learning material. As a person who can read in more than 10 different languages, Dr. Bak is no stranger to finding common ground between the languages he studies, e.g. finding similar sounds across Chinese and Polish, which were pointed out to him by his Chinese teacher. In the UK, teachers of Chinese should take advantage of the multicultural classrooms in which they teach and consider how many different languages are spoken by their students. Encouraging students to find similarities between Chinese and not only English, but other languages spoken at home, could not only further the interest and natural curiosity of students but make certain elements of learning Chinese easier.

Dr. Bak’s plenary will take place on Friday 15th June. To see the Conference programme, please click here

To book a place at this year’s Conference, please follow the link: Conference Booking Page

Dr. Bak writes for a range of publications on the subject of bilingualism. Please see the following links for some of his writing on topics concerning language learning and multilingualism.

Multilingual Lives – Thomas H. Bak

What Peppa Pig can teach us about bilingualism (and systematic reviews cannot) – Thomas H. Bak

Myths and Misconceptions in Multilingualism – Thomas H. Bak