Growing Up Bilingual

Working With Shpresa Programme: By Layal Husain PhD Researcher at UEL

I have had the privilege of visiting the Shpresa programme the past year as part of our research into children growing up bilingual. Established in 2003, the programme successfully run Albanian classes from two branches: a Saturday branch at Mayfield School, and a Sunday branch at Gascogine School. I quickly realized that Shpresa, as their name suggests (meaning hope in Albanian), does much more than provide language classes for their community. They involve and provide support for parents, families, and the wider boroughs they operate in through several ongoing initiatives and continue to take on beneficial and ambitious projects.  

Complementary, or supplementary, schools have been a growing movement in the UK,  providing a safe space outside of mainstream schools for the maintenance and transformation of young people’s mother tongue languages and cultures[1]. However, they face a range of challenges not limited to low funding and resources[2]This is no exception to Shpresa, who are a user-led organisation and rely on a strong and passionate team of volunteers.

Despite such challenges, Shpresa have uniquely been able to form partnerships with mainstream schools, and relationships both within and outside their community, that have aided in their notable success. In addition to their language classes, they have pioneered projects supporting women, the youth, unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers and refugees.

Their most recent project, funded by the Government Equalities Office,  aims to help women return back to work after taking a break for caring responsibilities, and is a testament to the range of incredible support they offer.

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From my visits with children, and my observations of classes, I have been able to see the dedication put in by teachers and the wider community to preserve the Albanian language and culture. Teachers bring a great wealth of knowledge and skills from their home countries and are trained and supported, with evident care being taken to children’s individual needs and progress. The classes are not just sites for language learning, but also play a key role in the identity development of both parents and students. As a complementary school, Shpresa provides a familiar and welcoming space for newly arrived parents, involves them in their child’s education, and gives them access to resources – even organising for their English classes. Simultaneously, children are made able to reflect on their overlapping cultures and identities and make use of opportunities to develop as bilinguals. The programme regularly offers activities and organizes community events and performances, celebrating these achievements, and allowing students to further consolidate and demonstrate their learning.


My research, based at the University of East London and in collaboration with the Newham Partnership for Complementary Education, aims to understand the specific benefits of growing up bilingual, and how complementary schools may especially facilitate a child’s bilingual and bicultural development. We know that being bilingual can lead to certain benefits in your way of thinking, how you perceive yourself and others, and generally give you better opportunities in education and employment. Previous research has already indicated the positive impact programmes like Shpresa can have. This includes better student motivation, higher attainment, and greater engagement with the family and community[3]. It is, however, challenging to actually raise a child bilingual, particularly in what is usually a strongly monolingual context in the UK and across mainstream schools. Programmes like Shpresa not only allow children to have the necessary exposure to their mother tongue language but also provide the larger linguistic and motivating community needed to overcome these challenges.

 As we continue with our research project, I am constantly amazed by the commitment and enthusiasm I encounter when speaking to even the youngest students, and the importance they place on these classes. Shpresa, as such, has become an integral part of these children, and their families, education and well-being. I would like to sincerely thank Shpresa, and its incredible community, for not just welcoming me during my visits, but for truly inspiring me with their commendable efforts in all that they do. My experience has been invaluable, and I continue to learn so much from the programme’s work. While Shpresa’s achievements speak for themselves, I hope our project will further showcase their best practice, and allow for the development of additional resources to promote complementary schools and language learning.

[1] Lytra, V., & Martin, P. (2010). Sites of Multilingualism: Complementary Schools in Britain Today. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books Limited.

[2] Sneddon, R., & Martin, P. (2012). Alternative Spaces of Learning in East London: Opportunities and Challenges. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, 6(1), 34–49.

[3] Maylor, U., Rose, A., Minty, S., Ross, A., Issa, T., & Kuyok, K. A. (2011). Exploring the impact of supplementary schools on Black and Minority Ethnic pupils’ mainstream attainment. British Educational Research Journal, 1–19.

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