Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Advancing the European Multilingual Experience

The project Advancing The European Multilingual Experience (AThEME) studied multilingualism in Europe by incorporating and combining linguistic, cognitive and sociological perspectives.

2014 - 2019
Lisa Cheng
European Commission FP7 Ga. 613465 European Commission FP7 Ga. 613465

AThEME was a 5-year collaborative research project (2014 – 2019) studying multilingualism in Europe. It combined linguistic, cognitive and sociological perspectives. Researchers from 17 partner institutions across 8 European countries worked together:

  1. investigating cognitive, linguistic and sociological issues in multilingual Europe,
  2. assessing existing public policies and practices within the areas of education and health and
  3. contributing to evidence-based policy making.

The project aimed to raise awareness of multilingualism among policy makers, health professionals, academics and educators. Please also access the AThEME Policy Briefs (right-hand column) dealing with regional languages, heritage languages, communicative impairment and cognitive aspects of multilingualism. 

To find out more about all the results of this project, please read the Final Summary Report

AThEME’s holistic approach to research yielded many important results and data. This shows us that a complex phenomenon such as multilingualism should be approached using a variety of research methods and strategies. During AThEME researchers used experimental techniques using eye-tracking, EEG and fMRI but they also employed (socio)linguistic methods like questionnaires. 

Universiteit Leiden Faculty of Humanities, Centre for Linguistics NL
Université de Nantes Département de Sciences du Langage FR
Universiteit Utrecht Faculty of Humanities, Department of Languages, Literature and Communication NL
The University of Reading School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences UK
The University of Edinburgh School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences UK
Universität Konstanz   DE
Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen Meertens Institute NL
Univerza v Novi Gorici Center for Cognitive Science of Language SI
Basque Centre of Cognition Brain and Language   ES
Universitat Pompeu Fabra Department of Information and Communication Technology ES
Centre National de la Recherche Scientiʨque Bayonne and Lyon FR
Universidad del Pais Vasco Faculty of Arts ES
Università degli Studi di Trento Dipartimento di Psicologia e Scienze Cognitive IT
Università degli Studi di Verona Department of Linguistics IT
Queen Mary and Westʨeld College, University of London Department of Linguistics UK
De Taalstudio   NL
University of Rijeka Faculty of Humanities HR


To increase our understanding of what multilingualism with regional minority languages entails from a linguistic, cognitive and social point of view.

With over 60 regional minority languages recognised in the EU, these languages form a big part of multilingual Europe. Despite this, attitudes towards regional minority languages are often indifferent or even negative, both at the speaker-level as well as at the policy-maker-level. This is partly due to the lack of understanding (description and analysis) of these languages.

Many of Europe’s regional minority languages are ‘vulnerable’ or ‘endangered’; they are learned by fewer and fewer children and therefore spoken by a declining number of people. However, regional minority languages provide a natural opportunity for multilingualism from childhood, a fact that is often not properly recognised or appreciated.

Research towards this objective was conducted by means of:

  • collecting, describing and analysing grammatical diversity across regional varieties and dialects spoken in various parts of Europe so that we could reach a deeper understanding of the fine-grained dimensions of linguistic diversity
  • comparing regional varieties/dialects with standard languages in order to gain a better understanding of how languages change over time due to contact with other languages; we also aimed to identify linguistic-structural characteristics and sociolinguistic variables that play a role in language change
  • experimental studies, investigating the cognitive effects of regional varieties, paying special attention to language distance, and type of linguistic knowledge
  • attempting to provide a systematic and in-depth description as well as analysis of language maintenance of regional varieties


To investigate factors which contribute to the maintenance of heritage languages and proficient multilingualism, with the aim to stimulating heritage speaker multilingualism as a growing resource in Europe.

One of the challenges posed by migration in Europe is to facilitate integration and social cohesion without inducing cultural displacement. This typically involves concentrating on learning the language of the host country while ignoring the importance of maintaining the heritage language.

A heritage language can be defined as a minority language acquired by children at home in a context of bilingualism with a majority dominant language; this situation is similar to that of children exposed to regional minority languages, except that bilingualism with heritage languages is becoming more and more common due to increasing transnational mobility.

This objective was addressed by:

  • experimentally investigating linguistic knowledge of heritage speakers in order to understand how heritage language knowledge and acquisition differs from both native and second language knowledge and acquisition
  • investigating the emergence of multi-ethnic varieties, within which we aimed to determine to what extent use of the variety acts as an impediment to social mobility, and the extent to which heritage language proficiency impacts the speakers’ ethnical/national identity


To provide assessment tools and therapy for clinical practitioners in treating multilingual European citizens with acquired communicative disorders, with a view to contribute to evidence-based policy making.

Multilingual children run the risk of being over diagnosed for communicative disorders (Developmental Language Disorder, or Developmental Dyslexia) when educators or clinical practitioners misinterpret non-target use of the majority language. Similarly, they can be underdiagnosed for communicative disorders because the impairments may be interpreted as typical developmental trajectory. In addition, issues concerning language control and language deterioration in elderly multilingual European citizens with cognitive impairment need to be better understood.

AThEME researchers approached this objective through:

  • experimental studies in which we investigated morphosyntactic awareness and interpretive competence in selected populations of developmental dyslexia multilinguals in comparison to monolinguals
  • employing Artificial Grammar Learning paradigms, so that we were able address the problem of wrong diagnosis
  • studying the elderly with Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease in order to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms of language control in multilinguals, as well as disease progression and language deterioration
  • a study of wellbeing and social integration of bidialectal elderly, by which we aimed to understand the emotional attachment to regional varieties, and how it impacts the wellbeing and social integration of the elderly


To understand the factors which contribute to being “successful” multilinguals.

There are many aspects of being “successful” as multilinguals. One important aspect for us to understand has to do with communicative interactions with multilinguals. Does the language in which we interact with others affect the way we perceive our interlocutors? How do we understand their messages and the weight we give to different aspects of the interaction if it is
not in our native language? Is it possible that negotiations conducted in a non-native language may lead to a different outcome compared to when the native language is used? Do we have more positive reactions when interacting with people speaking to us in our native language/accent than with those speaking in a different language or with a different accent. Furthermore, AThEME researchers aim to understand the cognitive aspects of multilingual interactions.

In addressing this objective, AThEME researchers aimed to:

  • advance our knowledge of how age-of-onset and language distance contribute to the ultimate attainment of L2 acquisition through experimental studies with multilinguals (using EEG techniques)
  • understand how certain processes (communicative alignment), are involved in conversations which may be affected when foreign-accented speakers are involved through experimental studies (EEG)
  • also understand the pragmatic abilities of early multilinguals and L2 speakers at different levels of proficiency, as these abilities are essential for daily conversations
  • further understand cognitive effects of multilingualism by comparing multilingual and monolingual populations


To raise awareness about multilingualism in European communities such that people in different sectors of society can make informed decisions.

In order to build public understanding of the nature of multilingualism as well as engage in a dialogue about the implications of research findings with the broader public, this project used and further helped develop the Bilingualism Matters (BM) network.

We aimed to build the public understanding of different types of multilingualism depending on age-of-onset, context, amount of input available, and attitudinal/sociolinguistic variables and, at the same time, build a strong and coordinated European
dissemination network promoting multilingualism by organising research-based awareness-raising activities targeting all sectors of society.

The overarching goal was to build public understanding of the nature of multilingualism and at the same time engage in a dialogue about the implications of findings for the decisions of individuals, groups and societies. The four main

  • disseminate research-based information about the nature of multilingualism at all ages
  • build the public understanding of different types of multilingualism depending on age of onset, context, and other individual/social variables
  • update the contents of the initial dissemination activities with the results of the ATHEME project
  • build a strong and coordinated European dissemination network promoting multilingualism by organising research-based awareness-raising activities targeting all sectors of society
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