Universiteit Leiden

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The effects of multilingualism

More than half of Europeans speak two or more languages. Linguist Lisa Cheng investigates the various forms of multilingualism in Europe from a linguistic, cognitive and sociological perspective. She looks for instance at the way in which minority languages influence the standard language of a country, and investigates the effect of multilingualism on cognitive capacity. This research on multilingualism is supported by the European Commission and carried out in no fewer than eight different countries: the Netherlands, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Croatia. Leiden University is co-ordinator of the project and is responsible for the collaboration within this large-scale project.

Influence on the standard language

One of the key questions in Cheng’s research is the extent to which minority languages (languages that are spoken by a minority of the population of a country, for instance by immigrants) and heritage languages (languages that are learnt at home but are not the standard language) influence the standard language of a country. Cheng: 'Did you know for example that the English youth of London speak very different English from the standard? We want to find out whether this is due to the migrant languages that are spoken in London and its surroundings. And if so, which languages? Which aspects of language (such as pronunciation, sentence structure, or word order) can be influenced, and which can’t?' These questions are studied by collecting recordings of English speakers between the ages of 18 and 25. The same research will is also conducted in the other participating countries, after which the data will be meticulously analysed.

Effects of multilingualism on cognition

Another component of the project is concerned with the potential advantages of multilingualism, for instance in terms of cognition. This addresses questions such as the following: How many languages do you need in order to have an advantage: two or three? Does it make any difference whether the languages resemble each other (German and Dutch) or whether they are very different (Chinese and Dutch)? Is it important to learn these languages at a young age, or does this not matter? These questions are also addressed in the eight countries listed above.

Contribution to European policy

The research results are very interesting from a linguistic perspective. And they can help assess European policy, for instance in the field of education. The goal of the European Commission is to ensure that every European citizen speaks three of the European languages fluently. The EU hopes by this means to protect language diversity and to stimulate language learning. The latter is important, says the EU, so as to make it easier for European citizens to find a job outside their own country, and in order to increase intercultural understanding within Europe. Cheng: 'But young people in Europe do not seem interested in learning a second language. So the question is how can you stimulate European people, especially young Europeans, to learn more languages?' With this project, the researchers hope to demonstrate, among other things, that the EU objectives should not only focus on ‘school languages’; in fact, heritage languages offer the same advantages. 'Once we have enough research results, we aim to issue this as an advisory document to the EU,' says Cheng.

Language policy in schools

The results of this project can also be used to formulate language policy in schools. European schools are increasingly facing classes of pupils with diverse cultural backgrounds who speak different languages. What learning methods work best to teach the standard language of a country in this kind of classroom? How can you make use of the knowledge and skills that the pupils already have? Potentially, this research can impact this entire field of policy.


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