Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates

1 Sep

Noels, K. (2005). Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates. Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 62(2), 285–312.

Most of the studies discussed so far involved large numbers of bilingual participants. Such investigations are interesting because they allow for generalisations: what does the majority of a large group do? However, in relation to bilingualism, such large-scale studies often don’t account for smaller sub-groups within the majority, or outliers, i.e. for the people who don’t perform according to the group norm. When accounting for outliers, one is essentially asking the does-everyone-do-that-(and-if-not,-why)? question(s). Sometimes, if there are enough outliers in a study, a researcher might be forced to question the generalisations he or she made about the group. For example, let’s say a researcher investigates adult population X and finds that most people (sub-population X1) in population X do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. The generalisation would be, quite simply, that most people do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. But – what if – in the same population X, population X2 were also found, and population X2 comprised highly motivated adult second language learners?  In that case, especially if population X2 were rather large, the researcher would (if he or she were a thorough researcher) want to ask why population X2 was especially motivated to learn second languages, as opposed to population X1. If the researcher were then able to find a factor which determined high motivation versus low motivation in adult second language acquisition, this researcher would have made a considerable step forward in research in bilingualism.

Kimberly Noels made such a step in her investigation into so-called German “heritage” language learners. Specifically, she investigated 99 students who were registered in German classes, differentiating between those who were of German decent (=heritage language learners) and those who were not of German decent (=non-heritage language learners). Although Noels examined German, globally, heritage language learners are a relatively common phenomenon. For example, whilst growing up in Anglophone Canada, I was exposed to Dutch because my father is Dutch, and my Oma and Opa were Dutch, but I can’t claim to have learned Dutch “perfectly” as a child; I was – and probably still am – a heritage language learner of Dutch as a result of less intensive exposure to the Dutch language resulting from my own cultural background. In her study, Noels found that heritage language learners of German were more motivated to learn German – than comparable non-heritage learners of German – for reasons related to their self-identify, and their conceptualisation of their cultural heritage. Interestingly, she didn’t just find that the heritage language learners were differently motivated to learn German, she also found that they were more successful at learning German than the non-heritage language learners.

In this way, her study feeds into a large body of research linking motivation to second language acquisition, some of which indicates that, even when a language is learned late in life, highly motivated learners are able to acquire native language proficiency in a second language. Practically, an implication of Noels’ research is that if you are thinking about learning a second language in adulthood, it might be worthwhile to focus on one with which you culturally identify due to your own heritage. In that case, you could be set to learn it quite well.

Esther de Leeuw

Learning through an Aboriginal Language: The Impact on Students’ English and Aboriginal Language Skills

31 Jul

Usborne, E., Peck, J., Smith, D.-L., & Taylor, D. M. (2012). Learning through an Aboriginal language: The impact on students’ English and Aboriginal language skills. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation, 34(4), 200–215.

In this post, I’m working with the general idea of the blog that learning an additional language (and hence, within a broad definition of bilingualism, moving towards bilingualism) is a positive experience. Note initially that there are some who might disagree with the idea that bilingualism as such is positive, and there are also fathomable instances in which learning an additional language might not be considered positive. That said, in working with the idea that learning additional languages is a positive occurrence, an immediately ensuing question is how those additional languages might best be learned.

Usborne, Peck, Smith and Taylor examined how Aboriginal languages in Canada can be learned most successfully by Aboriginal children and whether the learning of Aboriginal languages compromises the children’s knowledge of the mainstream language (i.e. English or French). This post therefore progresses from last month’s in which research was discussed which indicates that youth suicide rates drop in Canadian Aboriginal communities where Aboriginal language knowledge is prevalent. In addition to arguments based on the inherent detriment of language loss per se, there is thus ample, very pressing, reason for Canada to support the successful instruction of Aboriginal languages. However, as Usborne et al. discuss, challenging questions arise when the decision is made to include Aboriginal language instruction in Canadian school curriculum.

“During our own experiences living and working in Aboriginal communities, we have heard parents, community members, and educators debate the extent to which the Aboriginal language should be used in the classroom. Many Aboriginal families are committed to supporting attempts to have their children learn the heritage language, thereby promoting a strong Aboriginal identity. However, families are also committed to having their children master a mainstream language to allow their children to participate fully in modern, mainstream society. […] When there is a choice of enrolling one’s child in an immersion program in which children spend the majority of their school day learning in an Aboriginal language, parents often worry that their children’s abilities in the mainstream language will suffer.” (p. 203)

Accordingly, Usborne et al.’s research examines parents’ understandable concerns as to whether the mainstream language suffers when Aboriginal languages are acquired within an immersion context. Specifically, the researchers investigated the experiences of children (ranging in age from approximately four to seven) attending either 1. an Aboriginal language immersion programme or 2. an Aboriginal second language (L2) programme in a Mi’kmaq community in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The 84 children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme were “taught each of their core subjects (i.e., Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies) in Mi’kmaq throughout the school year”; whilst in contrast, the 134 children in the L2 programme were “taught their core subjects in English and took Mi’kmaq as a second language for a minimum of an hour a day” (p. 205). Importantly, the children all had limited knowledge of Mi’kmaq before entering the school (and they all went to the same school), so the assumption was that whatever they had learned or not learned would be a function of the different curricula, rather than their previous knowledge. The researchers then rigourously tested the children’s knowledge of Mi’kmaq and English during the school’s spring break using a battery of age appropriate language proficiency tests.

Expectedly, Usborne et al.’s results indicated that children in the Mi’kmaq immersion programme learned significantly more Mi’kmaq than those in the Mi’kmaq as an L2 programme. Moreover, and this is perhaps more surprising, children in their first year of school in the immersion programme had significantly lower English scores compared to those in the L2 programme; by the second school year this difference was reduced, but immersion children still had significantly lower English scores than did children in the L2 programme. However, and here the results become encouraging, by the third school year, children in the immersion programme had caught up to the English scores of the children in the L2 programme. Usborne et al. summarise that “students in the Mi’kmaq immersion program are not only learning more Mi’kmaq than students in the Mi’kmaq as a second language program, but they are also performing just as well in English [by their 3rd school year]” (p. 209).

Therefore, in line with the call at the end of my previous post for the instruction of Aboriginal languages in Canada in order to counteract high youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities, it seems that precisely Aboriginal language immersion programmes are a successful mechanism to encourage bilingualism in Canadian Aboriginal communities. Indeed, I suggest that it is exactly these incentives which should be duly financially and ideologically supported throughout Canada.

Esther de Leeuw

Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide

25 Jun

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 392–399.

This blog post takes its impetus from Canadian bilingualism, as discussed in the cover story of this weekend’s edition of the Globe and Mail, ‘Is Bilingualism Still Relevant in Canada?’. The post progresses to recent research by Hallett, Chandler and Lalonde, which examined the relationship between youth suicide rates and bilingualism in Aboriginal communities in Canada (the connection between the Globe’s article and Hallett et al.’s research will become clear as you continue to read).

According to the Globe and Mail’s cover story, many Canadians currently question whether the Official Languages Act, which established both French and English as official languages in 1969, should be reinterpreted to embrace not only French and English, but also many of the other immigrant languages in Canada. Indeed, with “more than five million Canadians speaking a mother tongue other than English or French as of 2006” (p. A10), and a total population of just under 33 million, the call for increased support in the instruction of immigrant languages is potentially highly valid in multilingual Canada. Furthermore, as has been discussed in some of my previous blogs, if bilingualism as such, has cognitive advantages, there is no need for the language combination of bilinguals in Canada to be restricted to French and English, unless the advantages of learning additional languages go beyond cognitive benefits.

Indeed, top reasons why readers of the Globe and Mail want to be bilingual are that they 1. value Canada’s history and heritage (identity reasons); 2. believe it’s intellectually enriching (cognitive reasons); 3. want to broaden their employment horizons (financial reasons); and 4. want to be global citizens (potentially both identity and financial reasons). Certainly, only the first reason (and perhaps the third if limiting oneself to Canadian borders) would constrain itself to a French-English combination. Therefore, to answer the Globe’s title question, yes, bilingualism is still relevant in Canada, just not solely in the form of French-English bilingualism, as Canadians have generally interpreted bilingualism until now.

However, and this is why I criticise the quality of the Globe’s cover story, the learning of Aboriginal languages is consistently avoided as a viable alternative in constructing Canada’s reinterpretation of bilingualism. Not once is even one of the over 60 recognised Aboriginal languages of Canada mentioned in the two page spread. This, in my view, is all the more disappointing if the outstanding research by Hallett et al. is brought into the discussion.

Very briefly, Hallett et al.’s study showed that youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities “effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language” (p.  392). Hallett et al.’s writing is so poignant that it is difficult to summarise for the purpose of this blog, especially considering the tragic nature of the exceedingly high suicide rates in aboriginal youth populations in Canada (compare over 95 suicides per 100000 in some of the Aboriginal communities with low rates of Aboriginal language acquisition which Hallett et al. looked at versus the national youth suicide average amongst 15-19 year olds of 11.5 per 100000 in 1996). As Hallett et al. discuss, according to the 2001 Canadian Census, overall, only 15% of the country’s Aboriginal children learn an indigenous mother tongue […]. Given such odds, and without special diligence, no more than two or three of Canada’s still existing indigenous languages are expected to survive beyond one or two more generations” (p. 394). In comparison to immigrant communities, the “perceived threats of indigenous language loss are often seen as even more real and more pressing. For such [Aboriginal] parents there is no ‘homeland’ where whole nation states continue to converse in their language of origin, and so no potential source of ‘new speakers’” (p. 393).

For Canadian Aboriginal communities, when their languages die, so too, one could interpret, do their cultures. Given Hallett et al.’s research, at the very least the instruction of Aboriginal languages should be discussed wholeheartedly in Canadian media, e.g. in the Globe and Mail, and increased support for the instruction of Aboriginal languages should commence as a matter of urgency. This, I believe, makes bilingualism highly relevant in Canada.

Esther de Leeuw

Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia

31 May

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45(2), 459–464.

This entry discusses research in bilingualism which has had a lot of media presence.

Very briefly, Bialystok, Craik and Freedman examined whether bilingualism delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia. Amazingly, their findings suggest that it is the case that bilingualism protects against the onset of the symptoms of dementia; however, as will be discussed, their results must not be generalized too much.

Initially, let’s look at how Bialystok and her colleagues designed their methodology. The researchers looked at 184 patient reports from the Memory Clinic at Baycrest in Toronto, Canada. The reports documented, amongst a lot of other factors, (1) the patients’ language backgrounds (e.g. whether they were bilingual or not) and (2) the age of onset of cognitive impairment (this age was determined in an interview during which a neurologist asked the patients and their caregivers at which age the symptoms were first noticed). Bialystok et al. then compared this age of onset of the symptoms of dementia in the monolinguals (49% of their population) with that of the bilinguals (51% of their population). Indeed, they found that there was a significant difference between the age of onset of the symptoms of dementia in the monolinguals and the bilinguals. Specifically, the bilinguals showed symptoms of dementia 4.1 years later than the monolinguals. All other factors, e.g. level of education, were considered to be equal, so it could be claimed that the “groups do not differ apart from their language abilities” (p. 462).

However, some interpretations of their results incorrectly suggest that learning a second language prevents dementia. This interpretation of their results is misleading for three reasons. Firstly, the bilinguals Bialystok et al. examined were people who “spent the majority of their lives, at least from early adulthood, regularly using at least 2 languages” (p. 460). It would therefore be incorrect to infer from their study that, for example,  attending an evening course to learn a foreign language in late adulthood could delay the onset of the symptoms of dementia (this might be the case, but their study didn’t examine such individuals, who, I emphasize here, could nevertheless arguably be considered to be bilinguals). Secondly, it would be incorrect to infer from their study that bilingualism prevents dementia. The bilinguals were just as likely to be diagnosed with dementia, it was simply the case that the diagnosis occurred on average later in the bilinguals than in the monolinguals, i.e. the onset of the symptoms of dementia was delayed in the bilinguals. Finally, the researchers suggest that (a specific type of) bilingualism is a protection against the onset of the symptoms of dementia. It may very well be that the bilinguals in their study actually acquired dementia at, on average, the same age as the monolinguals; crucially, it can only be claimed from their study that in the bilinguals the symptoms surfaced later than in the monolinguals (or, even more critically, that these symptoms were noticed later in the bilinguals than in the monolinguals).

However, if it is accepted that their findings indicate that (a certain type of) bilingualism delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia (and it seems that this would be a valid conclusion), there are practical implications. For example, it appears that raising a child in a bilingual environment has benefits in old age in addition to those potentially evidenced earlier on. Moreover, maintaining bilingualism instead of monolingual assimilation could postpone the onset of the symptoms of dementia in rather large immigrant populations.

Overall, Bialystok et al.’s results are truly amazing, indicating that the effects of bilingualism extend far beyond the immediate benefits of knowing more than one language.

Esther de Leeuw

Bimodal bilingualism

30 Apr

Emmorey, K., Borinstein, H. B., Thompson, R., & Gollan, T. H. (2008). Bimodal Bilingualism. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11(01), 43–61.

Often, when we think of bilinguals, we think of people who speak two or more languages. In fact, we might even claim that to be bilingual, one must speak at least two languages fluently.

Emmorey, Borinstein, Thompson and Gollan looked at a different type of bilingual, who they call “bimodal”. Bimodal bilinguals are “exceptional because distinct modalities allow for simultaneous production of two languages” (p.43). In practical terms, bimodal bilinguals are born to parents who are hearing impaired, or deaf. The parents’ hearing children learn to sign in order to communicate with their parents, while acquiring the spoken language of their environment, like other hearing children. What makes these children special is that they can produce both of their languages at the same time because it is physically possible to simultaneouslysign with your hands and produce spoken utterances with your mouth.  In contrast, unimodal bilinguals (e.g. someone who is fluent in both English and Spanish) cannot physically articulate two words or phrases simultaneously (e.g. it is impossible to say dog whilst saying perro).

Emmorey et al. investigated American English (AE) – American Sign Language (ASL) bimodal bilinguals to see whether they did indeed say AE words and produce ASL signs at the same time (they call the occurrence of such simultaneous words and signs “code-blending”). After all, just because it is physically possible to code-blend, doesn’t mean that bimodal bilinguals will actually do so.

Their study is interesting to research in bilingualism for many reasons. In particular, if the bimodal bilinguals code-blend frequently, Emmorey et al.’s claim is that this shows that selecting both languages (called “lexical selection”) is less costly than inhibiting one of the languages (called “lexical inhibition”). Lexical inhibition would entail the production of only one “term”, e.g. either saying the word dog, or signing its equivalent sign. Lexical selection would entail the production of both of the “terms” at the same time. The assumption is that the bimodal bilinguals will do what is less costly, or easier on the brain. If selection is less costly, the bimodal bilinguals will code-blend a lot; however, if inhibition is less costly, they won’t code-blend very much at all.

To conduct their study, eleven AE – ASL bimodal bilinguals were filmed. These participants were asked to converse with one another about chosen topics and the researchers coded the short films to see how frequent code-blending was in relation to their total conversation.

Their findings showed that code-blending was indeed frequent amongst the bimodal bilinguals: of the 910 utterances, 325 (35.7%) contained a code-blend and some of their data showed blending 98.0% of the time (p. 48). Interestingly, most of the code-blends were verbs, rather than nouns or adjectives. According to Emmorey et al., this high amount of code-blending indicates that dual selection of languages is less costly than the inhibition of one of the languages. Moreover, they tentatively suggest that the only reason why hearing unimodal bilinguals do not produce both of their languages simultaneously is because it is physically impossible to produce two spoken languages at the same time. Alternatively, if it were physically possible to say dog and perro at the same time, the Spanish-English bilingual in the above example would indeed do so.

Without a doubt, their study raises many questions regarding how bilinguals control the production of their languages. More basically, Emmorey et al.’s research exemplifies the many forms bilingualism can take.

Esther de Leeuw

Sociolinguistic perspectives on emerging multilingualism in urban Europe

6 Mar

Yağmur, K., & Extra, G. (2005). Sociolinguistic perspectives on emerging multilingualism in urban Europe. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 175/176, 17-40.

Until now, preceding blogs have discussed research which investigated bilingualism within individuals, examining (1) whether an individual can ever become a native speaker of a late learned L2 and (2) whether amount of L1 use influences level of proficiency in an L2. In contrast, the present blog discusses group multilingualism. Initially, Extra and Yağmur’s research will be discussed. Towards the end of the blog, reasons for European initiatives which support language diversity will be considered and related to their research.

In this article, Extra and Yağmur reveal some of the outcomes of their Multilingual Cities Project, the aims of which were to analyse the status of immigrant minority languages in six European cities: Gothenburg (Sweden), Hamburg (Germany), The Hague (Netherlands), Brussels (Belgium), Lyon (France) and Madrid (Spain). They wanted to find out, for example, which languages immigrant children speak at home and whether immigrant languages are maintained across generations. Impressively, 160 850 school children between the ages of 6 and 17 responded to their questionnaires (the younger children were helped by their teachers and members of the large research team).

Extra and Yağmur embed their research more generally into European language policy issues, addressing the question of how to deal with multilingualism in schools across Europe. A general theme in their research is that “[…] established majority groups often make strong demands on [immigrant minority] groups to assimilate and are commonly very reluctant to promote or even accept the notion of cultural diversity as a determining characteristic of an increasingly multicultural environment” (p. 24). In other words, Extra and Yağmur maintain that multilingualism is now a fact of life in Europe, so we should deal with it, rather than fight it.

The results from their questionnaires support their claim that multilingualism is presently an inevitable characteristic of Europe; apart from Madrid, the proportion of primary school children in whose homes other languages were used next to or instead of the mainstream language ranged between one third and more than half of the total population. Specifically, in Gothenburg, 36% of the examined population spoke a language at home which was not Swedish (and 75 different languages were spoken within this minority); in Hamburg, 35% of the population spoke a language at home which was not German (89 languages spoken within this minority); in The Hague, 49% of the population spoke a language at home which was not Dutch (88 languages); in Brussels, 82% spoke a language which was not Flemish (54 languages); in Lyon, 54% which was not French (66 languages); and in Madrid, 10% spoke a language which was not Spanish (56 languages). Some of the immigrant minority languages most commonly spoken in these cities were Arabic, Turkish, Polish and Russian. These numbers reflect, at least in the school aged population of the cities examined, a truly multilingual Europe, and the authors assert that this is not changing any time soon.

Extra and Yağmur then operationalized language vitality (how well a language is maintained within a language community) by calculating the average from four variables (pp.30-31): (1) Language Proficiency, the extent to which the home language is understood; (2) Language Choice, the extent to which the language is spoken at home with the mother; (3) Language Dominance, the extent to which the home language is spoken best; and (4) Language Preference, the extent to which the home language is preferred to be spoken. This operationalization is to a certain extent both unconventional (i.e. language proficiency usually depends on both understanding and producing the language) and questionable. Why is language choice derived solely from communication with the mother? Surely, this would apply less to a 17 year old than a 6 year old, and whether a child of 6 years of age has much choice in the matter at all is another question. Nevertheless, using this operationalization, Extra and Yağmur’s results suggest that Romani, Turkish, Urdu, Armenian, Russian and Albanian were some of the languages most likely to be maintained within the immigrant populations. In other words, it appears that individuals who speak these languages will be rather likely to maintain them within the profiled cities, whilst other languages will be lost across generations (unless, I note, a steady influx of speakers of the languages is maintained through immigration policies). It is not discussed why these languages are more likely to be maintained than others; but their results are interesting in that some languages appear to be “stronger” than others.

Moving on from their results, throughout their article it is either implicitly or directly argued that immigrant minority languages should not be “denied access to Europe’s celebration of language diversity” (p. 38). Extra and Yağmur quote the European Commission’s 2004-2006 Action Plan (2003) in which it is stated that “[p]romoting linguistic diversity means actively encouraging the teaching and learning of the widest possible range of languages in our schools, universities, adult education centres and enterprises. Taken as a whole, the range on offer should include the smaller European languages as well as all the larger ones, regional, minority and migrant languages as well as those with ‘national’ status, and the languages of our major trading partners throughout the world” (p. 9). Essentially, Extra and Yağmur suggest that the languages of the immigrant minority populations should be taught in schools, just like small regional minority languages (e.g. Frisian in the Netherlands) and large national European languages, such as English, are taught. In other words, they agree with the initiative of European Commission, as cited above. Relating their agreement to their results, if a large portion of the school aged population speaks, let’s say, Arabic, as is the case in Lyon, Brussels and The Hague, why not teach Arabic in these cities’ schools? Both Extra and Yağmur, as well as the European Commission, would appear to support such a change in schools (reflected in actual policies, rather than just small-scale community initiatives).

My initial question here is why the European Commission supports language diversity. What are the reasons for the policy initiatives suggested by the European Commission, which are supported by Extra and Yağmur? In order to answer this question, one should firstly study the purpose of the European Commission. As stated on their website, the European Commission’s purpose is to represent “the interests of the Union as a whole”, in contrast to the Parliament (which represents the citizens of the EU), and the Council of the European Union (which represents the governments of the individual states). So what are the interests of the European Union? Although environmental and human rights’ objectives are mentioned, it appears from the website that the European Union’s interests are largely economic in nature. “[The European Union] has delivered half a century of peace, stability, and prosperity, helped raise living standards, launched a single European currency, and is progressively building a single Europe-wide market in which people, goods, services, and capital move among Member States as freely as within one country.” The European Union is an economic community, and upholding the economic stability of the European Union is as such the primary concern of the European Commission.

Therefore, I interpret that the reasons for the policy initiatives to promote “language diversity” are rooted in the primary interest of the European Union to promote economic growth. It is not language diversity itself which is the goal of such initiatives on the part of the European Commission. In fact, language diversity is connected to economic growth; languages spoken by the European Union’s major trading partners are explicitly promoted. In practice, this means that there appears to be less of a reason to learn Bengali in Mile End, London or Somali in Easton, Bristol, because these languages will not promote economic prosperity in the European Union to the same extent that, for example, Mandarin Chinese or Hindi might. Arguably, if language diversity as such is the goal of the European Commission, all languages should be equally supported. If we accept that triaging, at least in schools, is inevitable (i.e. we can’t teach every language) then, in fact, those languages which increase economic prosperity of the European Union seem to be more likely to be “celebrated” under the auspices of “language diversity” than those which are not likely to. Indeed, it is language diversity – if it facilitates economic growth – which is implicitly supported by the European Commission.

Finally, is it valid to premise language diversity on economic growth (and this is what I claim is actually done in the European Commission’s 2004-2006 Action Plan, as discussed above)? Should the learning of a language which might promote economic growth somehow be more worthwhile than one which does so to a lesser, or even negligible, extent? I don’t think so. Each child, each person, learns languages for different reasons. Sometimes these reasons are simple: it is the language I spoke with my siblings and parents. Sometimes the reasons are complex: it is the language a distant relative spoke, but I’ve always wanted to learn; it is the language of my heritage, which I was not allowed to speak as a child (e.g. indigenous languages in Canada and other countries founded on European colonization); it is the language of my new partner, and I want to communicate with his or her family; or, perhaps more rationally, it is the language which I believe represents knowledge and learning (Latin). There is a point to the Commission’s Action Plan in that, often, the reasons to learn a new language are associated with economic growth. Parents search for new opportunities for their children, and in doing so, want to make those opportunities accessible through language. But, in my opinion, it should not be the case that economic reasons trump non-economic reasons. Each person learns new languages for different reasons and no reason is more valid than the next. It is language diversity itself which should be supported both within Europe and beyond.

Esther de Leeuw

Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of a Foreign Language

15 Feb

Bongaerts, T., van Summeren, C., Planken, B., & Schils, E. (1997). Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of a Foreign Language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19(04), 447–465.

This research targets the core of a long history of research in bilingualism which subscribes to the line of thought that, actually, it is never possible to speak a second language (L2) acquired outside of childhood like a real native language. Bongaerts et al. wanted to find out whether or not this is true.

More specifically, the purpose of their research was to examine whether people who learn an L2 after childhood can ever be perceived to be native speakers in their L2, as judged by real native speakers. In both of their studies, the listeners (who assessed the L2 speech) were British English monolinguals, whilst the L2 speakers were Dutch native speakers who had acquired English in school after 12 years of age in the Netherlands, and then gone on to become university lecturers of English in the Netherlands. These bilinguals were deemed to be “highly successful learners with an excellent command of (British English)” (p. 452) even before the actual investigation started.

Surprisingly, in their first study, five of the ten advanced Dutch learners of English scored higher than the British English control group, i.e. the Dutch lecturers of English were rated to be more native-like in their English than the real native speakers of English. Although this result is, on its own, rather intriguing, Bongaerts et al. argued that because the Dutch native speakers had learned a more prestigious form of British English (which contrasted with the somewhat regionally accented speech of the English monolingual control group), the listeners may have misinterpreted this more prestigious variety to be native speech and the regionally accented English speech of the control group to be foreign accented.

Their second study was therefore modified to match the listeners with the speakers: both parties were assessed to speak British English with a “neutral, non-regional accent” (p. 453). In line with the results of their first study, they showed that the group of highly successful learners of English received scores comparable to that of the native speaker controls. Some of the Dutch native speakers even outperformed members of the control group. Together, their results indicate that it actually is possible to speak a non-native language like a real native language.

But what made these learners so exceptional? How did they get to be so proficient in their English? After all, not every L2 learner outperformed the British control group, only some of them did. Bongaerts et al. suggest that motivation and intensive language input (see blog of 18 January 2012) are integral in perfecting the pronunciation of an L2. In other words, if a late bilingual receives enough input in his or her L2, and is highly motivated to acquire “perfect” pronunciation, it is possible to speak an L2 acquired outside of childhood like a real native language. In future blogs, we’ll discuss how more recent research (with conflicting interpretations) has targeted this controversial question of whether an L2 can ever become a native language.

Esther de Leeuw

Amount of L1 use affects L2 pronunciation

18 Jan

Flege, J. E., Frieda, E. M., & Nozawa, T. (1997). Amount of native-language (L1) use affects the pronunciation of an L2. Journal of Phonetics, 25(2), 169-186.

This study is presently a bit dated, but its results, at least to a certain extent, challenge some potentially misguided conceptions regarding childhood bilingualism. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to discuss their findings.

Flege, Frieda and Nozawa examined 240 Italian native speakers (the researchers call them native speakers because they learned Italian first, in Italy) who were adults living in Anglophone Canada at the time of the experiment. The Italian native speakers were assessed by native English speakers in Canada and the U.S. as to how strong of an Italian accent was present in their English. Essentially, Flege et al. wanted to find out whether some of the Italian native speakers had stronger Italian accents in their English than others, and why such differences might arise.

They split the Italian native speakers into two groups: the first, having less contact with Italian (self-reported average of 3%) and the second, having more contact with Italian (self-reported average of 36%). What makes the study interesting is that all of the Italian native speakers moved to Canada in early childhood (between 5.6 and 5.9 years), the assumption being that they were all exposed to English for the first time at this early age (e.g. in school).

The results revealed that both groups were found to have “mild” (p.183) but detectable foreign accents in their English, even though they had all started learning English at very young ages and had spoken English for 34 years on average. Crucially, the native Italian speakers who spoke Italian relatively more often had significantly stronger foreign accents in their English than those who seldom spoke Italian. These results are fundamental in our understanding of childhood bilingualism because they challenge the view that ultimate success in pronouncing an L2 is determined solely by an individual’s state of neurological development at the time of first exposure to an L2, or, put alternatively, they challenge the relatively commonly held view that pronunciation in an L2 is determined simply by age. Flege, Frieda and Nozawa say it’s not.

The study also raises a lot of questions: (1) do the findings apply to all individuals who learn an L2 in childhood? (2) are there other factors, aside from age and use, which might also influence pronunciation in an L2 (3) what was the L1 pronunciation like? More on questions like this in future blogs!

Esther de Leeuw

Aim of the QMUL Bilingualism Blog

17 Jan

Welcome to the QMUL Bilingualism Blog.

Research in bilingualism is of interest to a large and growing portion of the world’s population. Although no precise numbers exist, it is estimated that over 50% of all people speak more than one language (Grosjean, 1982). In London alone, it was reported not long ago that approximately 300 languages are actively used within the city’s boundaries (Buncombe & MacArthur, 1999). Similarly, the United Nations states that in 2005 almost 200 million people world-wide resided in a country outside of their birth. Of these, many will have acquired a new language in their recipient country. In fact, in 2006 the UK had one of the highest amounts of foreign immigrants of all EU countries – 451 700, a number not including movement within EU borders nor bilinguals with British citizenship.

These figures indicate that the magnitude and complexity of bilingualism is such that it cannot be considered peripheral to mainstream society. Accordingly, the Office for National Statistics has recognised the need to examine language background in the UK. In the Population Census for 2011, a question documented language use for the first time. Such policy initiatives reflect that today it is perhaps possible to assert that everybody is in some way affected by bilingualism – either as bilinguals themselves, as a result of bilingual family and friends, or as a monolingual impacted by the diversified patterns of migration in an increasingly globalised society.

Therefore, we argue that research in bilingualism affects everyone.

We’d like for this blog to promote communication between scientists in the field of bilingualism and those interested in the practical implications of their results.


Buncombe, A., & MacArthur, T. (1999, March 29). London: multilingual capital of the world. The Independent. London.

Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with two languages: an introduction to bilingualism. Harvard University Press.