Training teachers to recognise the link between heritage language and wellbeing

The University of Sheffield’s School of Education finds a profound link between language and sense of identity, with mental health implications when certain languages are considered less valid than others.

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This whole question of ‘who do they feel part of?’ is very relevant, this idea of belonging and emotional well-being as it links to language. So a lot of my students are doing research on the role of the teacher in the multilingual classroom, for example, and my work feeds directly into that.

Dr Sabine Little

Lecturer in Education Studies (Languages Education)


The research, conducted and taught by Dr Sabine Little, is proactive in training current and future teachers to understand the importance of heritage language to a child’s sense of identity.

Building on data gathered from questionnaire responses of 212 families, and in-depth interviews with ten multilingual families, the study – funded by the UK Literacy Association - aims to show how a sense of identity and belonging feeds into improved mental health, and stronger communities within Britain.

Sabine directs and teaches programmes at the University that are studied by current and prospective teachers; while her distance learning programme is made up largely of students who teach in international schools with a large intake of multilingual families, it’s these families that also stand to benefit from the enhanced understanding that is being passed on to teachers.

“This whole question of ‘who do they feel part of?’ is very relevant, this idea of belonging and emotional well-being as it links to language.

"So a lot of my students are doing research on the role of the teacher in the multilingual classroom, for example, and my work feeds directly into that,” says Sabine.

Informing the future of Britain’s teaching profession about issues that are, as Sabine says, “entirely relevant to their context,” is increasingly necessary; as prospective teachers enter Britain’s multicultural classrooms, there is a real need for them to be better able to connect with students who don’t necessarily use English as a first language.


Mental health and identity

Sabine says: “I think, by and large, society as a whole is becoming more aware of mental health issues and obviously how the public reacts to your identity might trigger quite a visceral emotional response. With migration being in the news as much as it is, it’s becoming ever more important.”


I think it would be very tricky, in this day and age, to find somebody – anybody – who works in a completely monolingual society.

Dr Sabine Little

Lecturer in Education Studies (Languages Education)


However, it’s not just prospective teachers that stand to benefit from this heightened understanding of how language links to identity – people working in any public-facing position may find it an asset, Sabine believes.

“I think it would be very tricky, in this day and age, to find somebody – anybody – who works in a completely monolingual society.

"So, whether you’re a social worker and you engage with families who have got these issues going on; whether you’re a teacher and you’ve got multilingual kids in your classroom; or whether you become a university lecturer and you have multiple groups of students talking to you, I think it’s relevant in all those contexts,” she says.

While this research can – and has – been taken further afield, there is a very specific local relevance to it: with an estimated 150 languages being spoken in Sheffield, strengthening community ties stands to benefit not only individuals, but the city itself.


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Research Excellence Framework 2021 results

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