Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Blog post by Eva-maria Schnelten

In September, the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona hosted the Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism, a renowned school for postgraduate students and researchers to gather, present and discuss the newest developments in their respective fields.

A few members of Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh were able to attend this year, promoting their research either in an oral presentation or a poster session.

The overarching theme was, as the name suggests, research concerning bilingualism and multilingualism: ranging from neuro-cognitive factors and the implications for ageing and health to the sociolinguistic development in bilingual children. The talks and posters provided an interesting and broad overview of the work that has been conducted in the field.

Languages and the brain

In recent years, the significance of cognition and mental faculties in regard to language learning and language use have been the subject of many studies. Jubin Abutalebi, a cognitive neurologist and professor for neuropsychology at the Universita Vita-Salute San Raffaele, provided new insights into the implication for bilingualism and brain activities, and the role of individual differences. Although individual differences have only been on the rise in linguistic research in the last few years, it has been proven that this ever so slight variation results in varying cognitive performances. When speaking of individual differences, we not only have to take into account the different performances, but also the characteristics of the individual brain. Research has shown that asymmetrical brain structures are often associated with better performance in the executive functions: attention, inhibitory control or working memory for example, and that people with symmetric brains can actually outperform their peers by learning new languages.

Another aspect that was discussed is the way a bilingual’s brain will activate different areas for different languages: the right hemisphere is more active when speaking Chinese than when speaking English. The right side of your brain is affiliated with spatial awareness, and since Chinese is a more spatial language, the right side will show more activation.

For an unbalanced bilingual (where one language is more proficient than another), more neuro-resources are required whilst speaking the less proficient language – which every bilingual has experience with in one way or another. You think harder to find the right words, are constantly monitoring your sentence structure and have to actively inhibit the other languages that you speak. Abutalebi suggests that half of the neurons in our brain are active for this inhibition and control mechanism at all times. All these findings underline the claim that bilingualism may play a big role in advancing age and health. Hence, the significance of research conducted on this is not only interesting but of utmost importance for the education and health system.

How languages influence our social behaviour

The neurolinguistic studies were accompanied by sociolinguistic research. For example, Katherine Kinzler, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, presented the social side of multilingualism in her module. In social research, there are three categories that we use to ‘categorize’ others: gender, age and race. This happens naturally at an early stage in life –without discriminatory implications.  However, Kinzler pointed out that language, too, is used to categorize: based on vocabulary choices, accents, dialects and other aspects, language is often used as indication for group membership. But how do monolinguals and bilinguals differ in their social understanding of language, or children and adults? Even young kids are sensitive to slight changes in the language they are exposed to, without the knowledge that adults have. In one of her studies, Kinzler and her colleagues found that children were flexible to believe that language is a constant, whereas race was subject to change. The children had to match videos of a young person speaking to that of an older person, to see who they think the child in the video grows up to be. The results showed that young children took language as the main factor in matching the videos rather than the looks of the person: a young blond Caucasian child speaking English could grow up to be a brunette Asian woman , because both spoke English. This goes to show that language, especially for children, represents something stable, a key variable in their categorisation. These views change with age, and surely experience.

Kinzler, among others, has proven in multiple studies that multilingualism facilitates social communication.  The multilingual experience shapes our understanding of situations and different perspectives, and allows us to comprehend not only behaviour, thoughts and feelings of others, but also other cultures and backgrounds.

Our contribution

Students and staff of the University of Edinburgh went to Barcelona to present their work. For example, Reham Al Rassi gave a talk about her PhD project on the ‘Effects of Biliteracies on Bilingual Executive Functions’, Timea Kutasi held a presentation ‘Is lexical alignment in dialogue modulated by foreign accent?’, whereas other Master students and PhD students took part in a poster session, where research is presented on a poster. This is usually a more informal setting, where people can look around and approach the researcher to ask questions and learn more about what is discussed on the poster itself. The following posters were presented by Bilingualism Matters volunteers:

Linguistics, cognitive and social perspectives of being educated in a regional minority language: a study on Gaelic-English young adults (Timea Kutasi)

Individual differences in bilingualism (Simona Perrone)

Second Language Attrition as a Consequence of Third Language Acquisition – the Role of Language Aptitude (Eva- Maria Schnelten)

The Influence of Temporal Context on the Production of Temporal Morphology In L2 speakers of English (Qingyuan Gardner)

Instructed vs. Uninstructed Bilinguals: the Role Played by Metalinguistic Awareness in Third Language Acquisition (Francesca D’Angelo)

L1 Attrition and Second language acquisition: L1 accommodation correlated to L2 learning proficiency (Roberta Sperlozi)