Aptitude Effects in Near-Native Second Language Acquisition

30 Oct

Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). THE ROBUSTNESS OF APTITUDE EFFECTS IN NEAR-NATIVE SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30(04), 481–509.

In their study “The Robustness of Aptitude Effects in Near-Native Second Language Acquisition”, Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2008) investigated individuals who had learned Swedish as a second language (L2) either in childhood or adulthood. Their aim was to find out whether a high level of language aptitude (i.e. language talent) affects how likely the two groups (early and late L2 learners) attain native-like levels of proficiency in their L2.

The researchers predicted that a high level of language aptitude would only be a predictor of success in Swedish (i.e. how native-like they were in their L2) in the late learners, but not in the early learners. The reason why they predicted that a high level of aptitude would only “help” the late L2 learners is that they work with the idea that early language learners are at an advantage when learning second languages anyway (because they are young). In other words, children don’t need “help” (here, in the form of language aptitude) like adults do: learning an L2 for children comes naturally, according to Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson. In order to investigate the effect of aptitude on early versus late learners, the authors used language aptitude tests (developed in Swansea, Wales, largely by Paul Meara), and various tests to examine proficiency levels in Swedish. In total, Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam investigated  42 highly proficient L2 speakers of Swedish (Spanish was their L1; 31 were early learners, whereas 11 were late learners). Fifteen native speakers of Swedish comprised the control group against which L2 proficiency was measured.

As predicted, their findings showed that the language aptitude scores had a greater effect on predicting the proficiency levels in the late L2 learner group than in the early L2 learner group. Surprisingly, their findings also showed a small but significant influence of aptitude on early L2 learners. In brief, the authors conclude that individuals who have a high language aptitude are better equipped to learn an L2 in adulthood than individuals who have less aptitude, and that aptitude might even “help” children who acquire an L2.

However, there are two ways in which their results can be viewed critically. Firstly, aptitude runs the risk of circularity. Perhaps the “best” L2 learners improved their aptitude because they had indeed become very proficient in their L2, rather than aptitude aiding them in becoming very proficient. Moreover, it is difficult to assess the causal role aptitude plays in L2 acquisition (whether it be in young or in late learners), when other potential predictor variables are not investigated. Factors such as motivation have often been reported to influence level of proficiency in an L2, and, if such factors are not likewise examined, it is essentially impossible to determine whether they too may have affected the proficiency levels reported in the late L2 learners; or, indeed, whether aptitude and motivation are highly correlated to begin with, and hence it may not be aptitude which is the driving force behind high proficiency levels in a late learned L2, but rather motivation (or something else).

All that said, the findings give compelling reason to further examine the role aptitude plays in predicting individuals’ success in learning languages both during childhood and in adulthood.

Mariana Esmeriz and Esther de Leeuw

Multilingualism and personality

24 Jun

Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei. 2013. ‘Is multilingualism linked to a higher tolerance of ambiguity?Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 16 (1): 231-240

The personality trait ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ (TA) has been described as a tendency to see ambiguous situations as positive or desirable. Ambiguous situations might be ones that are difficult to categorise, that lack familiar cues, or that present a person with complex or contradictory signals. TA has been studied in organisations, businesses, and classrooms, and relates to flexibility, adaptability, learning, and positive experiences in diverse groups and situations.

Surveying over 2000 people, Dewaele and Li Wei found that monolinguals have the least TA by a significant margin, and multilinguals are significantly more ‘tolerant of ambiguity’ than both bilinguals and monolinguals. Knowing more than 3 languages wasn’t associated with greater TA, but greater proficiency did correspond to higher TA scores. Interestingly, even relatively short, intensive acquisition of another language correlated with TA, suggesting psychological benefits of language learning later in life.

How should we interpret this link? Is it greater TA that causes people to seek out new experiences like language learning? Or is it the learning of languages that creates greater TA in a person? The authors acknowledge that further work is needed to establish the causal relations involved, but previous research suggests that the second reading is certainly plausible. Here, I reflect briefly on two important implications.

A distinction is often drawn between ‘elite’ bilingualism (becoming bilingual by choice, e.g. for travel or cultural prestige) and ‘folk’ or ‘minority’ bilingualism (becoming bilingual as a consequence of one’s family or community situation). Elite multilinguals are often admired in the UK, whereas community multilinguals are often viewed as a costly burden. Dewaele and Li Wei’s research stands to bridge this artificial divide. In fact, both groups are likely to develop greater TA, which in turn corresponds to inter-personal flexibility, empathy, ease of cross-cultural communication, and desirable professional and leadership skills.

Dewaele and Li Wei’s work is also important in shifting discourses about multilingualism beyond just economic advantages (in public discourse) and cognitive advantages (in academic discourse), towards interesting questions of personality and psychology. Supporters of English monolingualism in the UK and in the US routinely assert that the ease of speaking English internationally means that teaching other languages is a waste of funds. Dewaele and Li Wei’s findings imply, however, that this reasoning could create nations of subtly less tolerant people, less psychologically able to cope with diversity, difference, and change.

Devyani Sharma

Multilingualism and Genesis

31 May
This is an Anglican Church in Gitwangax with the totem poles in the background.

This is an Anglican Church in Gitwangax (Kitwanga) in northern British Columbia, Canada with traditional totem poles in the background. UNESCO lists the indigenous language spoken here as “severely endangered“.

In Genesis, Sebastião Salgado has photographed the endangered, the threatened and the rare. Looking at his photographs is like looking through windows. Salgado has opened the blinds into a wild, disappearing, and otherwise hidden world. Here, I relate his photographs to language.

Languages carry social meaning, both for the group – or person – who produces the language, as well as for the group – or person – who perceives the language. With language, a culture can distinguish itself from others; a person can stand out as unique from those with whom he or she is conversing; and a passage of time can surface as different from all those which preceded it, and all those which are to follow. Language is intrinsic to our identities: we express and perceive identity through language. Crucially, when a language, or a form of a language, is lost, so too is an identity, or a form of an identity.

Just like the animals and landscapes Salgado photographed, many languages are endangered, threatened and rare. UNESCO has documented that, if nothing is done, half of the over 6000 languages presently spoken will disappear by the end of this century. These are the languages of the people Salgado captured in his photographs, but also those of the many other colonised areas of the world, such as the First Nations languages in northern Canada (see picture of Gitwangax, where Gitxsanimaax is endangered),  the aboriginal languages in Australia, and the indigenous languages of South America. We see these threatened cultures in Salgado’s windows, hovering on the brink of assimilation with our Western world, and we know, ultimately, they are who they are because of language.

And yet – Salgado can’t take a picture of language. Language is this enormous abstract entity, which essentially loses all meaning unless it is represented across the dimension of time. It is impossible to take a “snapshot” of language as Salgado does of a smile, a gesture, a glance. To understand language, to produce language – and all that which is intrinsic to our identities – one must, at least to a certain extent, acquire some sort of knowledge of that language. If language is recorded, and a slice extracted, as a visual moment is through a photograph, it loses its meaning.

Looking through Salgado’s windows, one cannot hear the voices of the people he has photographed. Language, something so all encompassing, so powerful, is silent. From my perspective, a way to give endangered languages a voice, in one’s own life, is to support multilingualism. The process of language loss is, according to UNESCO, “neither inevitable nor irreversible: well-planned and implemented language policies can bolster the ongoing efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalize their mother tongues and pass them on to younger generations“. Peter Austin of SOAS has coined the personal concept of a language footprint. To improve one’s own language footprint, one can, for example, learn a new (perhaps even a minority) language, avoid products and activities that give people no choice other than to use dominant languages, support increased language learning in one’s own country, and learn about the world’s diversity of languages.

For me, such small steps may be a personal way to help counter language loss, and therefore, ultimately, all that is lost therewith.

Esther de Leeuw

Multilingualism means business

30 Apr

There are many reasons as to why multilingualism is considered valuable. In terms of language policies (e.g. whether a government decides to endorse multilingualism), more often than not encouraging multilingualism needs to be financially justifiable. Only then will multilingualism be endorsed through policy.

But how does one know whether multilingualism is indeed more profitable than monolingualism? Is it really the case that a multilingual population will increase a country’s economic prosperity? Does a person who speaks more than one language earn more than a person who speaks only one language? These questions are difficult to answer, especially because multilingualism is closely tied to other factors, such as level of education. One way of examining the financial benefits of multilingualism is to ask employers whether they value multilingualism in their companies. If they do, the assumption is that this is most likely because they associate multilingualism with an increase in profit.

The CBI / Pearson education and skills surveys are large scale questionnaires which examine what employers are looking for in their workforce. In the present blog entry, some of the 2012 CBI / Pearson survey’s findings on multilingualism are reported. In brief, the survey suggests that employers consider a multilingual workforce to be beneficial. For example, “[n]early three quarters (72%) of businesses say they value foreign language skills among their employees, particularly in helping build relations with clients, customers and suppliers (39%)” (p. 55). The report also revealed that companies which are export orientated are more likely to value a multilingual workforce than companies which are less export orientated. “[O]ver half of firms in manufacturing (59%) and in engineering, hi-tech/IT and science (55%) see foreign language skills among staff as helpful in building relations with overseas contacts, while a third report foreign language skills as assisting staff mobility within their organisation (33% in manufacturing and 32% in engineering, hi-tech/IT and science)” (p. 56). Indeed, many employers are actively recruiting new staff which are proficient in foreign languages, whilst other employers are addressing the issue by “raising the language skills of their existing staff, using private providers (21%), FE colleges (6%) or in-house language training (15%)” (p. 57). European languages are considered to be the most useful (by those valuing staff with foreign language skills) with German, French and Spanish respectively rated as the most useful foreign languages. Moreover, “[l]anguage skills geared to business in China and the Middle East feature prominently (of those valuing staff with foreign language skills, 25% rate Mandarin as useful, 12% value Cantonese and 19% Arabic). Findings from the survey also reflect the need for language skills that can help to manage workforces in the UK from non-English (e.g. Polish) speaking backgrounds.

The findings from the CBI / Pearson education and skills survey most likely influenced Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, in his recent decision to make foreign language learning compulsory from the age of seven. This policy initiative was largely endorsed throughout the UK, and certainly is by me. Perhaps, however, in addition to this initiative to increase the learning of foreign languages in the UK, it would similarly be wise to harness the extant multilingual resources in the UK through encouraging the maintenance of immigrant languages. For example, under Michael Gove’s plans, primary schools will offer lessons in French, Mandarin and Spanish, amongst other languages. Indeed, these languages are already widely spoken in immigrant communities in the UK. According to the 2011 Census results, 147 000 people in England and Wales already speak French as their main language; 141 000 speak a form of Chinese as their main language; and 120 000 speak Spanish as a main language.

From my vantage point, it seems contradictory to encourage the learning of these languages in schools without encouraging their maintenance in immigrant populations. Moreover, I would predict that – all else being equal – employers value these languages as such in their companies.

Esther de Leeuw

Up Close: 2011 Census Data on Multilingualism

20 Mar
Street logo Brick Lane, London in English and Bengali

Street logo Brick Lane, London in English and Bengali

Since data from the 2011 Census were released, there has been a fair amount of discussion in the press about multilingualism. For example, in one analysis, the BBC accurately reported that of those surveyed in England and Wales, 138000 speak no English. In Languages Mapped, the Guardian displayed this in relation to the total population, showing that this is equivalent to slightly less than 0.3% of the total population. It perhaps goes less reported that in London almost 50000 people can speak no English (that’s 0.6% of the population of London). And that in Tower Hamlets, where Queen Mary, University of London is located, nearly 4000 people reportedly speak no English (that’s 1.6% of the population of Tower Hamlets).

For many people in the UK, it is these absolute numbers which are staggering.

Why is it that some people – whether it be nearly 138000 in England and Wales, 50000 in London, or almost 4000 in Tower Hamlets – speak no English? 

To answer this question, it is necessary to look at immigration patterns in the UK. Globally, the UK is known as what is called a “recipient country”. This means that, for various reasons, political policies presently promote overall movement to the UK from other countries, rather than overall movement from the UK to other countries.

Therefore, understandably, another question which was asked in the Census was country of birth. Here, the Census data tell us that 13% of the population in England was born either in an EU country, like Poland, France, or Spain, or in a so-called “other country”, like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, and so on. But – and this is worth emphasising – most likely in a country where English was *not* their main language. And, rather amazingly, 37% of London’s population was born in such an EU or “other” country. Even more striking, 42% of the population in Tower Hamlets was born either in the EU or in such an “other country”.

And – this is what the Census data also tell us – many of these immigrants haven’t been here that long. Almost 2% of the total population of England arrived from outside of the UK within the last 2 years; in London, 4.5% of the population arrived within the last 2 years; and, in Tower Hamlets, just over 7% of the population arrived within two years. Here my point is that it’s really not that surprising that, given such a high amount of people who’ve actually just arrived, some have not yet learned English. Think about this just for London: 0.6% of the total population reports to not speak English, and 4.5% of the population of London has arrived in London within the last 2 years. It seems like these new arrivals might actually be doing quite a good job at learning English in those two years.

Finally – the Census data also tell us how old immigrants were when they arrived to the UK. (The Census surveyed all those 3 years and over.) Indeed, the data revealed that 1.7% of the population in England and Wales arrived between the ages of 0 and 4; 3% of the population in London arrived between the ages of 0 and 4; and 4% of the population in Tower Hamlets arrived between the ages of 0 and 4. Some of these little ones most understandably won’t yet speak English because at home they speak the language of their parents. But they will learn English, when they go to school, and start to meet other little boys and girls around the country, in the capital, and in Tower Hamlets.

So, we have some tentative answers to the question: why is it that some people here speak no English? And these answers don’t have to do with motivation or attitudes. They simply have to do with population demographics. Some people don’t speak English because they’ve “just” arrived to the UK, and young children might not yet speak English because they’re too young to have learned it – they are learning the languages their parents speak to them. But they will learn English; it just takes a bit of time.

The Census data therefore suggest that immigrants to the UK are indeed learning English (and there will be another blog related to this soon). But the data also tell us something else. They suggest that immigrants are losing the language of their heritage. Like in so many other recipient countries, children from immigrant families at one point switch from the language of their parents to English. Although approximately 13% of the population in England was most likely born in a country where English was not their main language, just under 9% of the population reported a language other than English as their main language. Similarly, although 37% of London’s population was born abroad, only 22% of the capital’s population list a language other than English as a main language. And although in Tower Hamlets 42% of the population was born abroad, only 35% of its population list a language other than English as their main language. More people come here with a language other than English as their main language than people actually report having a main language other than English. This effect – and it is standard in recipient countries – is referred to as a lack of intergenerational language transmission. We see it in other recipient countries as well, like Canada and the U.S.

I believe that there was consensus in the panel yesterday at Multilingual Capital that, at the very least, all people who’ve moved to the UK should be, if so desired, supported in their wishes to maintain the languages of their heritage. The reasons for this support are vast, and in my view, ultimately amount to human rights, but there are also practical reasons, such as to support the economic prosperity of the UK, and to maintain a more healthy population, as there are links between health and proficiency in more than one language.

For me, these are all reasons to support multilingualism. Specifically in the capital, this can be achieved, for example, through ensuring support for the maintenance and development of heritage languages alongside the parallel acquisition of English – one in no way precludes the other.

Esther de Leeuw

Multilingual Capital: A Resource for London Communities

15 Mar


London is a multilingual capital. The most recent census results show that over 20% of Londoners use a main language other than English, far above the country’s average. Yet bilinguals face many challenges in using their languages.

Devyani Sharma and I are launching a new initiative called Multilingual Capital: A Resource for London Communities on 18 March 2013 at Queen Mary, University of London to support multilingual communities in the capital and beyond.

The primary aims of Multilingual Capital include:

  1. Engaging with London communities so that the rich linguistic diversity of the capital is accurately represented;
  2. Increasing the visibility of multilingualism in the capital so that groups impacted by multilingualism can share ideas and develop a common voice;
  3. Sharing research findings on multilingualism to ensure that relevant knowledge is disseminated to all groups impacted by, and interested in, multilingualism;
  4. Creating knowledge in the emerging research area of multilingualism through documenting language use and diversity in London and beyond.

This event will include a series of short talks by researchers in the field of multilingualism, with plenty of time for a question-answer session.

Find out more about this event here.

Esther de Leeuw

2011 Census results: How well do English speakers speak English?

14 Feb
Main Language?

2011 Census questions on language use (or, my first picture)

For the first time in its history, the 2011 Census posed questions related to multilingualism in England and Wales (see image). However, although this development as such is commendable, it is my view that there is room for these questions to improve in the 2021 Census. In this post, I will discuss an incorrect assumption which underlies the language related questions in the 2011 Census.

The assumption with which I take issue is evident as one progresses from question 18 to 19. Here, the assumption is that there is no variation in proficiency levels within the group of people who mark English as their “main language”, i.e. if English is your “main language”, you will speak it just as well (or just as poorly) as the next person, who likewise claims English to be his or her “main language”, so you can progress to question 20 without filling in question 19. Depending on how prescriptivist your take on language is, you might find this assumption questionable. Surely, it’s not that contentious to claim that some English speakers have a better command of the English language than others (e.g. they know more words, or are able to use those words more elegantly), or, alternatively (if you don’t accept the former), that one’s command of the English language develops over time (e.g. I certainly hope that my English monolingual students (many, but not all of them are monolinguals) have a better command of the English language after studying than before they started their degrees). To take an extreme example, I wouldn’t think twice if someone told me that Noam Chomsky has a better command of the English language than I do, and nor would I think twice if someone told me that my command of the English language is better now than when I was 18 years old (well, I hope they would tell me that – and, at any rate, I wouldn’t mind if someone compared my English with Noam Chomsky’s, however poorly I fair in the comparison). Professor Chomsky and I would probably both put down English as our “main language”, but how well we speak English varies. The point is that even amongst people who claim that English is their “main language”, there is very possibly variation in how well they do so. Moreover, if we draw bilinguals into the equation, who claim that English is their “main language”, but perhaps speak another, or even a few more languages on top of English, there might be even more variation in their proficiency levels in English. Essentially, it would be nice to know how well English speakers claim to speak English.

Furthermore, the questions in the 2011 Census imply that those who have English as their “main language” have a higher proficiency in English than those who don’t claim English to be their “main language”. Currently, “[o]f the eight per cent (4.2 million) of usual residents aged three and over who reported a main language other than English, 41 per cent (1.7 million) could speak English very well, 38 per cent (1.6 million) could speak English well, 17 per cent (726,000) could speak English but not well and the remaining three per cent (138,000) could not speak English at all”. I do wonder how the “main-language-English-speakers” would rate themselves had they been asked to answer this same question. Indeed, if we were asked to rate each other, we might score all in all quite poorly (think Emma Thompson’s review of school girl English). I would probably say “well” for myself (probably not “very well”) and it would depend on a lot of factors such as with whom I compare myself. If it were Noam Chomsky, I might go down to “not well”.

However, and this I want to emphasise, we really don’t know how to interpret the ratings from the “non-English-main-language-speakers” unless we have ratings from the “main-language-English-speakers”. And this we would only get if we asked both groups how well they speak English. I think that this should be done for the 2021 Census. Then we’ll know what those percentages – 41, 38, 17, and 3 per cent – really mean.

Esther de Leeuw


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