Bilingualism Matters Blog

Welcome to the Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh blog section! We invite a wide range of contributors to get involved and stimulate discussion about bilingualism and language learning. As such, not all opinions given here represent the views of Bilingualism Matters.

Research on Bilingual Listening: Is Bulgarian-accented English easier to understand for Bulgarian-English bilinguals?

By Maria Dokovova

1. Why did I start this?

It is widely perceived that second language listeners are better at understanding second-language accents rather than first-language accents. For example, as a Bulgarian whose second language is English, I am expected to be better at understanding Bulgarian-accented or foreign-accented English, rather than native English accents. Other people have put a name to this belief, calling it the Interspeech Intelligibility Benefit Hypothesis.

Different studies in the past have come up with contradicting results for this hypothesis. The majority reject the hypothesis; they find that hearing the accent of another language does not make it easier for the listener to understand what is being said, even if that other language is their native one. So, Dutch-English bilinguals do not benefit from hearing Dutch-accented English. There are some exceptions however. If the listeners have low proficiency in their second language, then they might find it easier to hear their first language accent while listening to the second language. So, as a learner of English in high school, it might have been easier for me to understand the accent of my fellow Bulgarian classmates rather than the American teacher.

Due to the fact that there was insufficient research in this area, as well as the fact that these papers were in constant disagreement with each other, I was inspired to study this specific area for my PhD at the Speech and Hearing department of Queen Margaret University.

2. What did my participants do?

In one of my experiments I collected data from 94 Bulgarian-English bilinguals living in the UK. I made an online experiment that I shared through social media among different Bulgarian groups across the UK.

I measured the participants’ English proficiency using a tool called Lextale; by testing to see if the participants can recognise and distinguish the real words from false words on the screen, such as real words  “carrot” and nonsensical words “raccot”, Lextale calculates and comes up with a percentage score.

The participants’ understanding of accents were measured using a similar tool. They listened to real English words or nonsense words pronounced by either two native English speakers or two Bulgarians who spoke English as a second language. After hearing each word, they pressed a button on their keyboard to respond whether it was a real or nonsense word. I measured their accuracy and the speed at which they answered. It was assumed that a lower speed and lower accuracy meant that they struggle more at understanding the particular accent.

3. What did my bilingual participants actually do?

Overall, most participants responded more slowly and less accurately to a Bulgarian accent than a native English accent. Meanwhile, the listeners with the lowest English proficiency had no difference between the two accents, while the bilinguals with the highest English proficiency had slower and less accurate responses with Bulgarian-accented words. The latter even demonstrated slower and more inaccurate responses than the lowest proficiency participants. This means that the listeners who had the lowest proficiency in English were better at understanding Bulgarian-accent English than the listeners who had highest proficiency in English. However, because this study focused on Bulgarian bilinguals, this may only be the case for Bulgarian-accented English.

4. So what?

The main finding of this experiment is that no one was better (faster and more correct) at understanding Bulgarian-accented English than native English speech. In other words, this study did not support for the Interspeech Intelligibility Benefit Hypothesis.

It seems that Bulgarian-English bilinguals with higher proficiencies in English are specialised to native English speech at the expense of Bulgarian-accented speech.

As usual a study raises more questions than it answers! I wonder, would people who are just starting to learn English benefit more than more advanced learners from being taught by someone with a Bulgarian accent?

All of my participants lived in the UK – so would high English proficiency matter less if they lived in Bulgaria and were surrounded by speakers of Bulgarian-accented English?

I would love to see other people do similar research with different language pairs so that we know how much we can generalise the results. Another future step (and a challenge!) would be to study these relationships in a more natural setting, focusing beyond single-word recognition.

Maria at the 2019 Bilingualism Matters Research Symposium

Multilingual Encounters: Sign Language Researcher Helen Koulidobrova

1.  Who are you and where are you based?

I am Helen Koulidobrova, PhD, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics in the Department of English and Director of CT Bilingualism and English Language Learning Research Lab at Central Connecticut State University. Respectfully acknowledging that l live and work on the ancestral lands of Mahican (including the Potomuc), Minisink (Muncee), Moheg (including the Niantic), Pequot, Nupnuc, and Quiripi (Mattabesic, Pugusett, and Schaghticoke) people.

2.  What languages do you know and use?

Russian, Ukrainian (Heritage), English, Spanish, American Sign Language (ASL)

3. Summarise your area of work in 100 words.

I research what it means to know sign languages and how people acquire them. On the formal side of things, I explore syntax and semantics of ASL by asking questions like why can subjects and object can be dropped and some languages but not others, why some languages but not others require articles, etc.  I come from the school of thought that such questions are modality independent, though what modality (spoken or sign) may very well contribute to our understanding how each of the languages works in the end. On the applied side of things, I am interested in how children and adults acquire sign languages if they already know how to sign. This means both children growing up in multilingual households with more than one sign language and adults learning an additional sign language for educational and economic reasons, much as what people do with additional spoken languages.

4. The ‘so what?’ question – how can we learn or benefit from this?

The ‘so what’ is easy. Consider a simple case of a deaf/hard-of-hearing individual moving to a different country and attempting to see a doctor. In many such countries, an interpreter would be provided (by law), but this interpreter would be equipped to offer only two languages: the local spoken/written language and the local sign language. But what if the deaf individual in question does not know the local sign language? Clearly, in order to be able to access the interpreter services, they would need to learn. But how? What are the differences between the sign languages?  How do signers learn other sign languages? Given the fact that around 95% of deaf and hard-of-hearing children are born to hearing parents, the vast majority of whom never learn how to sign, we might also ask: can multilingualism experiences, known in the spoken language literature to offer certain types of effects, circumvent effects of language deprivation?  This is only a sample of the questions that arise here.

Want to read more? Helen’s research publications can be found here.

The Northern Neighbours: the Catalan language in France

Post by Talia Bagnall

The Northern Neighbours: the Catalan language in France

If you look up Perpignan on Google, you’ll find stock photos of brightly coloured buildings, the regal castillet standing proud in the city centre, or the palm trees beside the canal.  What you won’t see is the Catalan flags hanging from balconies, or the bilingual French-Catalan road signs, or the bakeries selling Catalan delicacies alongside French baguettes.  Perpignan is the only city in Roussillon, which along with the districts of Vallespir, Conflent, Capcir, and Cerdagne, form Northern Catalonia.  This region has been part of France since the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, but it remains a País Català (Catalan country), and maintains the Catalan culture and language.  It’s a language that appears similar to French and Spanish, but it’s a beautiful language in its own right, and has its own rich vocabulary, literature, and history.

For many years, Catalan was the main language of the region, and French was the official language of the state.  But after the Revolution, the new government tried to unify their country by enforcing French throughout the country.  When education became compulsory, French became the only language taught in schools, and it was the lingua franca for French troops in the First World War.  These days, just over 35% of the population of Northern Catalonia speak Catalan, although 61% understand the language.[1]  You are more likely to hear Catalan chatter in the villages or communes rather than in Perpignan, with the exception of the Sant-Jaume quarter.  This is home to the multilingual Roma community, who identify as Gitanos, and who continue to speak a distinct version of Catalan as their main language. 

Of course, Catalan is not the only minority language in France.  Breton, Alsatian, Basque, and Occitan are just a handful of the languages heard on the mainland, not to mention Corsican, various Creoles, and many more indigenous languages of French territories overseas.  Despite the diversity of France in geographic, population, and linguistic terms, it remains heavily centralised.  On the one hand, this has created a strong national identity that carried France through the revolution and post-war rehabilitation.  On the other hand, it has resulted in many minority groups feeling forgotten, and the loss of local tongues and traditions.  French is the only official language of the state, and France is still to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. 

And yet, Catalan is still surviving, albeit not thriving.  Even those who do not speak the language might sing along to the rugby anthem “Cantem mes Fort” when supporting USAP, the Perpignan rugby team, or listen to Catalan music on Radio Arrels, or watch a Catalan play at the theatre or at the Catalan culture centre.  Perpignan is just two hours from Barcelona, and the emergence of the Catalan capital as a vibrant, modern metropolis has improved the image of the language in the eyes of new learners.  Despite political tensions, the possibility of a future independent Catalonia may also encourage more business, cultural, and linguistic exchanges with their French neighbours. 

On the surface, Perpignan is a sunny southern French city, but listen closely, and you might hear a “bon dia” amongst the “bonjours”. 

[1] Enquesta d’usos lingüistics a la Catalunya del Nord 2015

Is bilingual education harmful?

Post by Dr Thomas Bak, Bilingualism Matters Programme Director (Bilingualism in later life, healthy ageing & dementia)

The recent article in The Scotsman, in which the Conservative education spokesperson Liz Smith described Gaelic-medium education as a “deeply troubling step” has already generated, as could be expected, a lively and passionate discussion. Much of the ensuing debate has been based on political, ideological and indeed, emotional arguments. So maybe it’s time to bring in some scientific evidence.

Liz Smith’s critique of Gaelic medium education contradicts a huge and growing body of evidence suggesting exactly the opposite of what she was claiming: knowledge of different languages, education in different languages, learning and using different languages have all been shown to have beneficial effects on cognition. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that bilingual children outperform monolingual ones on cognitive tests; interestingly, some of these studies have been done specifically in Gaelic-medium education.

However, these effects are not confined to childhood, they continue across the lifespan leading to a slower cognitive ageing, delayed onset of dementia and better cognitive recovery after stroke. Remarkably, an improvement in attention has been documented in participants of all ages already after a one-week intensive language course. And the language used in this study was… Gaelic!

The idea that learning a new language harms the knowledge of existing ones is based on a “limited resources model”. Its main assumption is that, as there is only a limited space in our mind and brain, all inputs have to compete with each other, and adding something new means invariably taking something else away. Translated into the world of language, everything done in any language other than English weakens English and hence, harms children’s education. (The fallacy of the limited resources model when applied to multilingualism is explained in a Bilingualism Matters blog post.)

This intuitively convincing model has a crucial shortcoming: it assumes that all pieces of knowledge that we learn are unconnected. This is clearly not the case. Every new piece of information we get is integrated with existing knowledge and in this way can strengthen rather than weaken what we already know.

Modern neuroscience has moved away from speaking of circumscribed “areas” dedicated to a single type of function, emphasising the importance of connections and dynamic networks. Research has shown that in people who can speak more than one language, activation of one language leads to activation of others. This richer pattern of activation requires higher levels of cognitive control and hence stimulates the development of better cognitive functions such as attention across the whole lifespan.

It is time that this knowledge reaches those who are responsible for the education of future generations.

Broadening the Horizons of Applied Linguistics Beyond Language

Elina Karadzhova Languages: Time Dreams Avatars |

Post by Dobrochna Futro

On 31st of August 2019 the AILA Creative Inquiry in Applied Linguistics Research Network will convene a colloquium entitled ‘Broadening the Horizons Beyond Language’ as part of the British Association for Applied Linguistics Conference 2019 ‘Broadening the Horizons of Applied Linguistics’. The colloquium will be co-convened by myself, Dobrochna Futro, (Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh and University of Glasgow) and Marta Nitecka Barche (University of Aberdeen).

[Read more…]

Art speaks all languages

By Eva-Maria Schnelten

As part of this year’s Refugee Festival Scotland, Bilingualism Matters teamed up with colleagues from the University of Edinburgh Alwaleed Centre and on Friday 28th June 2019 presented an exhibition of art works created by members of the refugee community in Edinburgh, with a special poetry reading, all on the Festival theme of “Making Art, Making Home”.

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Growing Up Multilingual

Post by Miranda Garralda Wong

It’s becoming increasingly common nowadays that children from primary and secondary schools are engaging with and learning to use more than one language. Across the world, policies have been shaped so to encourage the next generation to think outside of the box and  be open to the possibilities of a different linguistic universe, and to therefore be conscious from an early age, of the cross-cultural other.

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What is the Influence of Bilingualism on Development for Autistic and Non-Autistic Children?

Post by Dr Rachael Davis

Here at the University of Edinburgh, our new research project is underway to find out whether hearing or speaking more than one language influences children’s development, and importantly, whether these effects are different for autistic and non-autistic children.

Why are we doing this research? There are two main reasons. First, although there is general agreement from research that growing up in a bilingual environment does not have a negative influence on skills such as language development (and could even provide an advantage across a range of social and communication areas), there is less clarity around other so-called ‘bilingual advantages’, [Read more…]

From the lab: how artificial grammar systems can help identify speech and language impairments

Dr. Diego Gabriel Krivochen works at the University of Reading on artificial grammars, as part of a group led by Prof. Douglas Saddy. We chatted to him about how they are currently used and how their future development could revolutionise diagnosis of speech and language impairments.

1.      What is an artificial grammar system?

[Read more…]

Learning Foreign Languages (Nearly) Naturally

This article is part of the international bloggers event “Learning foreign languages (nearly) naturally”, organised by the blog ‘Le Français illustré’ (French language illustrated).

As a French creative practitioner based in Scotland for over 20 years and working with children ever since, I can safely say that:
– Constantly juggling between English and French languages, I am bilingual.
– I have a passion for education
– I have an equal passion for sharing my language and culture.
– And I love making things (especially puppets!)

So after qualifying in Childcare and Education, I created my own professional path and set up a bilingual puppet theatre company. The aim: introduce children to my language in the most natural way I could think of – through French talking puppets. [Read more…]