Three kinds of uncertainty in multilingualism research


Groups and individuals:

In multilingualism research, we often try and make general statements about groups of bi- or multilinguals: „Spanish-English children had less words in English than in Spanish“ „Turkish Germans children aged 5-8 processed violated plural forms differently from their monolingual peers“. While studies with humans are always affected by individual differences to some extent, in bi- and multilingual subjects, this issue is amplified. No bilingual grows up the same way as the next. Often, we even find that within e.g. one Italian-German family there are siblings that speak more or less German or Italian, despite growing up with the same parents that use the same quality and quantity of language. However, in multilingualism research, we must move beyond the description of very individual scenarios in order to be able to report more general effects.

A still relatively young area of multilingualism is now focusing on relating very individual factors (e.g. the number of hours a child is exposed to language A versus language B, or the level of the parent’s language skills) to linguistic or even neurophysiological manifestations in the different languages. Thus, we attempt to capture individual differences while making general statements. Below is one example from a group of Italian-German children in 1st and 2nd grade. Displayed is the relationship between lexical scores in Italian and the hours the mother has spoken during the child’s life. The blue and red squares reflect the individual children with their respective German and Italian scores.  The more the mother spoke Italian, the better the lexical scores in Italian, and the lower in German.

While a level of uncertainly remains about our groups, we can at least try to deal with individual variation in a productive way.

In this graph, the relationship between the amount of language use of the mother in the respective languages German or Italian is displayed.

Myth and fact

Several myths about multilingual children exist such as a) multilingual children are disadvantaged when it comes to cognition, language development, etc.  or b) a good basis of a first language is necessary to acquire a second.

It is strange (and somewhat troubling), however, that some of these myths are so hard to dispel. To this day, I hear teachers, parents, educators, doctors etc. repeat those exact two myths. They are extremely strong and persistent, perhaps feeding into the worry that bi- and multilingualism is potentially harmful. We have now over 50 years of ample research on the successful acquisition of two or more languages from an early age, to equal (if not in some select areas and experimental settings better) cognitive skills. But this seed of “uncertainty” about bi- and multilingualism lingers on.

Beliefs and behavior

A third kind of uncertainty with respect to multilingualism is the behavior associated with it.  We currently investigate the beliefs and opinions teacher education students have towards multilingualism. This is part of a study on multilingualism in secondary schools. A study from Belgium revealed that secondary school teachers have a relatively high monolingual mindset (3,7 on a scale 1-5, with 5 being the most monolingual) (Pulinx et al., 2015). For this, teachers had to rate eight statements on such as „Students should be punished for using their heritage language in the classroom“ or „The school should provide classes in the heritage languages“. In a comparative study with Belgium, teacher education students at universities in Konstanz and in Tübingen had to rate these same eight statements. Our results show a higher orientation towards multiligualism (.,7 in Tübingen and 2.9 in Konstanz) than in Belgium, however, there is still much potential for students to have a more positive opinion towards multilingualism in schools. If we want to move forward in teacher education in the multilingual classroom, students (and thus future teachers) need to have certain and positive opinions towards multilingualism.

The same holds true for parents: Often they report to be „uncertain“ which language(s) to speak when and to what extent. They are afraid to „confuse“ the child or to „overtax“ her brain.

Thus, all three “uncertainties” are related. How to generalize from the individual to groups with all this variation, how “reliable” are mean values in the face of this issue and what do they tell us. And finally, how to know what is correct behavior – we as researchers think we do - but it is up to the parents and the teachers to put this into action every single day.

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See also: FELLOWS