Losing a language in childhood

JCL blog post May 2015Blog post written by Cristina Flores based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Child Language

What happens if a bilingual child with immigration background moves (back) to the country of origin of his/her family and loses contact with the language that until this moment was his/her dominant language? Does the non-used language disappear from the child’s mind?

This new paper analyses such a situation of remigration of a bilingual child and its consequence for language development. The analysis is based upon a longitudinal study of language attrition in a bilingual child, Ana, who grew up in Germany and moved to the country of origin of her parents, Portugal, at the age of nine. Since she has few opportunities to contact with German after remigration, Ana experiences a DOMINANCE SHIFT from German, the (until now) dominant language, to Portuguese, her heritage language.

Data collection, based on oral interviews and story retelling, started three weeks after the child’s immersion in the Portuguese setting and ended eighteen months later. Results show first effects of language attrition after five months of reduced exposure to German, namely lexical difficulties and deviant syntactic omissions. At the end of the study the informant showed severe word retrieval difficulties and was unable to produce complete sentences in German. The findings thus confirm the conclusions of other studies on child language attrition, which attest to strong effects of attrition when the loss of contact with the target language occurs in childhood, i.e. before the age of eleven/twelve. It remains an open question if the language «comes back» easily after re-immersion in a German environment.

Read the full article ‘Losing a language in childhood: a longitudinal case study on language attrition’ here.

Is the Portuguese version of the passage ‘The North Wind and the Sun’ phonetically balanced?

IPA May 2015Blog post written by Luís Jesus based on an article in Journal of the International Phonetic Association

Those who have worked over the years on Portuguese have often wondered if there was a standard phonetically balanced text that could be used for research. There is no easy answer to this, and one is not able to find any consensus.

We had been wondering for a while if (perhaps with some luck) the Portuguese version of “The North Wind and the Sun” passage would be phonetically balanced (sometimes the solution is just around the corner…).

The same concerns about other languages, not least English, have also been raised and discussed for a long time. This discussion has recently been revitalised by Martin Ball at wordpress.com (2012/2013).

A phonetically balanced text covers all phones in a target language (with a frequency as close as possible to the natural language), presentsexamples of all phonotactic rules, based on a small number of words in current use. Portuguese is spoken by over 244 million people in nine countries, but there is no standard phonetically balanced passage for research and clinical practice.

This paper aims to determine if the short text “The North Wind and the Sun” (NWS passage – a text used as part of the illustrations of the International Phonetic Alphabet, over the last 100 years) is phonetically balanced for European Portuguese (EP) and Brazilian Portuguese (BP).

Two phonetic transcriptions of the text based on specific grapheme-phone transcription algorithms for EP and BP are presented. The frequency of phonemes in the NWS phonetic transcriptions are compared with the phoneme frequency information contained in the most recent and largest EP and BP databases. Statistical analysis revealed that there were significant differences between the frequency of phonemes in the BP NWS transcription and the frequency of phonemes in the BP databases. Additionally, the BP version of the NWS does not cover all BP phonemes. So, the NWS cannot be considered as a phonetically balanced text for BP. Only in terms of manner of articulation, the BP NWS transcription could be viewed as phonetically balanced.

For EP, statistical analysis revealed that there was no difference between the number of phonemes in the EP NWS transcription and the frequency of phonemes in the databases. Moreover, the NWS passage covers all phonemes and all phonotactic rules of EP. The NWS passage can therefore be used for EP speech and hearing research, and clinical assessment of patients with fluency or voice disorders.

Read the full article ‘ Is the Portuguese version of the passage ‘The North Wind and the Sun’ phonetically balanced?’ here.

Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World

Post written by Jennifer Austin, María Blume & Liliana Sánchez authors of Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World.

Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking WorldBilingualism, and how it affects language and cognitive development, is a topic of increasing relevance in an interconnected world. In Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World, we examine how the outcomes of bilingualism are shaped by factors at the individual level, such as age of acquisition and the amount and type of input, as well as societal support for the minority language in the form of dual-language education and similar initiatives. By analyzing previous research on the effects of these variables on bilingual speakers’ linguistic representations, as well as their minds and brains, we have attempted to provide a better understanding of some emerging conceptual views of the bilingual speaker. We also discuss how societal maintenance of bilingualism differs within the three multilingual communities which are the focus of this book: Peru, Spain and the United States. The status of Spanish varies between these regions; in Peru and the Spanish Basque Country, Spanish is a high-status, majority language, and in the United States, it is a minority language with varying degrees of prestige. While these three communities are linked by the common thread of bilingualism in Spanish, they provide diverse perspectives on the experience of being bilingual in distinct cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts.

In the first chapter of the book, we examine how the concept of bilingualism has evolved from early definitions which included the expectation that bilinguals should behave like monolinguals, as in Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism as the “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933: 55-56). Increasingly, contemporary theories of bilingualism view differences between bilinguals and monolinguals as expected and normal, rather than deficiencies on the part of the bilingual. In addition, we discuss how heritage speakers challenge previous expectations regarding bilingualism, namely that the first language acquired is always the dominant one (the “mother tongue”), as well as the language that is acquired in a “native-like” fashion.

In the second chapter, we discuss recent research showing that the two languages of a bilingual are highly interconnected at the lexical, syntactic and phonological levels. We also review evidence that the continual interaction between the languages of a bilingual has important repercussions for cognitive development in bilingual children beginning early in infancy. These include enhanced executive function skills stemming from bilinguals’ need to monitor and inhibit one of their languages, as well as enhanced literacy abilities for bilingual children acquiring same-script languages. Bilingualism also produces neuroanatomical changes in multilingual speakers, including enhanced subcortical auditory processing and increased grey matter density in the inferior parietal cortex, an effect that is modulated by language proficiency and age of acquisition. Finally in the second chapter we presented evidence regarding the factors that affect L1 and L2 attrition in bilinguals, including age of second language immersion, availability and type of input, and proficiency levels in each language.

The third chapter examines several theories which have been proposed to account for lexical and syntactic development in bilingual children and adults. While early theoretical accounts assumed that lexical and syntactic development occurred separately, more recent approaches have proposed that their acquisition is interconnected, a theoretical linguistic advance which finds empirical support in the studies of the bilingual lexicon by cognitive psychologists. In this chapter we also present research findings that have allowed the field of bilingualism to move from initial debates on unitary versus binary systems of representation to a more nuanced view of the development of the bilingual lexicon and syntax that involves the interplay of different language subcomponents.

The overall picture that emerges from this book is thatthe cognitive and linguistic effectsof bilingualism illustrate just how complex the representation and processing of language are in the human mind in ways that go beyond accounts based solely on the study of monolinguals.

To find out more about this new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here

Language use affects proficiency in Italian–Spanish bilinguals irrespective of age of second language acquisition

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Fabrizio De Carli based on an article in the latest issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Age is considered an important factor for the acquisition of new skills in the domain of language and in other perceptual and cognitive competences. Clear evidence of age of acquisition (AoA) effects has been found in the development of sensory systems, supporting the idea that specific brain functions can develop only during an early critical period, characterized by brain plasticity. The crucial role of infancy for the acquisition of basic language competences is supported by clear findings involving first language (L1) but its extension to second (L2) and further languages is controversial. Can adult people learn new languages and reach native-like skills? What factors or condition favor the acquisition of high proficiency in the new language? Experimental studies suggest that implicit learning and continued language use are major factors influencing bilingual proficiency.

According to the Declarative/Procedural Model (Ullman, 2001), language processing mainly includes: a mental lexicon, depending on declarative memory, a set of grammatical rules, and phonology, which both mainly depend on procedural memory. Accordingly, L1 acquisition extensively relies on implicit learning and procedural memory while L2 acquisition involves explicit learning and declarative memory. The convergence hypothesis (Green, 2003) suggests that these differences decrease when proficiency increases. However, beyond lexicon, grammar and phonology, verbal communication also involves pragmatic competences, enabling the use of sentences appropriate to the context, including figurative, metaphoric and idiomatic expressions. Another pragmatic competence concerns the communication in bilingual mode and entails the ability to switch between languages without code-mixing and interferences.

We present a study aimed at verifying the effect of AoA and intensity of language use on proficiency in a bilingual task and its relationship with cognitive skills. The study involved a group of Italian–Spanish bilinguals who performed a battery of cognitive tests and a bilingual test mainly involving pragmatic and lexical competences but not phonetics: it required the fast recognition of whole sentences having the same functional meaning in the two languages, so stimulating automatic language processing and switching. Statistical analysis showed significant effects of language use and cognitive skills, mainly switching and executive control, and a non-significant effect of AoA. These results indicate that intensive bilingual practice is a major factor influencing pragmatic bilingual proficiency, even irrespective of AoA, also suggesting that proficiency may be weakened when bilingual experience becomes occasional or ceases. The study also confirms the association between bilingual proficiency and cognitive skills which might reflect a positive reciprocal influence.

Read the full paper ‘Language use affects proficiency in Italian–Spanish bilinguals irrespective of age of second language acquisition’ here.

A Fuss about the Octopus

ENG-Blog-April-2015Blog post written by Inge Otto based on an article in English Today 

If I ask you to think of one octopus, then of two, of three even – what word comes to your mind as the plural form of ‘octopus’? If you were to think about your choice longer, is there another word you could use for the same purpose? In theory, you could come up with three options. The plurals octopuses, octopi, and octopodes are all attested in English, and thus could all be used to refer to more than one octopus.

When you look at these plurals from a purely descriptive point of view, they are thus equally useful and acceptable. However, to prescriptivists some of the plurals are better than others. In advisory books about language usage, in so-called usage guides, the authors usually express their preference of one usage over the other. The Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Henry Watson Fowler, 1926) advises the reader to use ‘octopuses’ for example.

The HUGE database that Robin Straaijer and I have been working on in the context of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project includes excerpts from dozens of usage guides like Fowlers’ one. In my English Today feature, ‘A Fuss about the Octopus’,  I discuss the results of searching this database of usage guides and usage problems for pieces of advice about the plural of octopus. Whether or not there is evidence for a link between people’s actual usage of the plurals on the one hand and the prescriptive advice provided in usage guides on the other, is something that is touched upon in the article too.

Read the full article ‘A fuss about the octopus – Another invitation to contribute to questions studied by the Bridging the Unbridgeable project at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics’ here.

Key links:

L3 Acquisition: A Focus on Cognitive Approaches

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Maria Del Pilar Garcia Mayo, introducing a new special issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

Most available evidence suggests that, when acquiring a new language, our brains make the automatic and unconscious assumption that, at some or all levels, it ‘works’ like one of the languages we already know. Since this is not necessarily the case for all properties, when our mental processor ‘transfers’ the previously acquired language this may have positive or negative (and sometimes downright comical) results with respect to target-like performance. How does the brain determine this source of transfer? Which language should it choose? In second language acquisition this question need not be asked, but what if the learner already speaks more than one language? A majority of the contributions to this special issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition deal with these questions, which are inevitably related to cognitive economy: transfer, more often than not, saves our brain a lot of time and effort. Exactly how, and under which criteria, the transfer source selection task is performed is what our colleagues are trying to determine. Inside this issue you will find state-of-the-art research on transfer at the initial stages of third language acquisition and beyond, inspecting a variety of linguistic domains that range from morpho-syntax to the lexicon.

Development, a concept just as important as the initial state, takes a complex yet fascinating turn in third language acquisition. A number of papers in this monograph focus on the diverse paths that the course of language acquisition may take within the sphere of multilingualism: from a look at heritage speakers who embark on relearning their native language to a formidable four-year longitudinal study that tracked the progress of almost one hundred bilingual children as they learnt a third language.

Of course, there is room for doubt in this special issue. One of the contributions poses the sensible question of whether studying how third language learners process language will teach us anything we cannot find out by looking at second language speakers. Is there really a qualitative difference between second and third language processing, or is it just more balls to juggle? The answer is as multifaceted as the question itself, but it has great implications for the way in which our brain deals with language.

Ever wondered what we already know about the adventure of learning a third or further language? Come and find out by reading the special issue of Bilingualism here.

Does the socio-cultural context influence the way Chinese people write business English?

ENG blog - Mar 15Blog post written by Marisa Carrió and Rut Muñiz based on an article in the latest issue of English Today

As China has emerged as an economic giant and has established business relationships worldwide, the use of English has become essential in every day communication. New digital written genres such as emails are used every day in a globalized business context. We think that this current setting encourages participants to experiment with communication, changing and adapting language to their own comfort, using a more direct style, and prioritizing instant communication over grammatical and style correctness.

We believe that it is necessary to take into account the cultural background of the speaker when interpreting meaning in a business context in order to understand the message in cross-cultural communication.

In this sense, since English is spoken by more non-native speakers than by native speakers nowadays, it could be said that it becomes like a “sponge”, absorbing the characteristics and features of different cultures and languages. Chinese speakers of English are not an exception, differences or variations can be observed in their language use.

In this paper, we contrast business e-mails written by agents who work in an exporting company in Hong Kong and China and communicate via email with their counterparts all around the world. Two research questions arise from this study:

a. What are the most common types of variation produced by Chinese writers of English?

b. Does lexical variation change when English is used as a second language or as a foreign language?

Our main aim is to determine the causes of variation and their influence on digital discourse.

The results of the analysis of the corpus compiled showed that there are variations indeed. We observed that Chinese writers used more non-Standard English than do Hong Kong writers, as for the latter English is an official language and is used as a second language. Furthermore, business English tends to be more informal when used by Chinese writers, transmitting the linguistic and cultural identity of the author as, for example, they use a commanding style or invent a given name.

Read the full article ‘Identification and causes of lexical variation in Chinese Business English’ here


Authenticity as a Continuum

Pinner-Authenticity-EnglishBlog post written by Richard Pinner based on an article in English Today

Authenticity is a familiar and well used term in language teaching.  It is also a loaded term, with connotations that go deeper than the origin of a particular material, but all the way to philosophical conceptualizations of self. For this reason, the ‘classic’ and inevitably culturalist definition of authenticity, as something from a target language culture whose original purpose was not for learning, can actually work negatively against people who are not intimately associated with the target culture. Simply put, there is still an embedded and implied connection to ‘native speaker’ countries when authenticity is discussed in terms of language teaching. This native speakerist conceptualization of authenticity rears its ugly head when selecting ideal models to present to learners, whenever a so-called non-standard grammar usage is called into question, and basically whenever a textbook is written.  In my paper I tried to highlight the fact that English is still taught as an Inner-Circle language in many EFL contexts, such as Japan (Matsuda, 2003) and other parts of Asia. As a result of culturally-embedded and Anglo-American oriented views of English, the concept of authenticity in such contexts still lies in the hands of the ‘native speaker’.  In an attempt to address this issue, I adopt the view that authenticity is partly a socially constructed shared experience and partly a sense of validity which comes from the individual self about the teaching/learning situation. In the article I start by outlining some of the difficulties surrounding the notion of authenticity, then go on to argue that authenticity might be better represented as a continuum, which makes greater allowance for the perspective of English as an international language.

As Mishan (2005)and Gilmore (2007) both explain in some detail, the issues around the concept of authenticity are varied, abstract, overlapping and often contradictory. For me, it was a rich place to immerse myself for a PhD, but for most people it simply isn’t practical to read decades of abstract arguments in the literature just to answer the question “what is authenticity”? Further complicating the issue, several scholars (such as van Lier, 1996 for example) seem to be drawing their definitions from existential philosophy. Aside from being an attempt at redefining authenticity to be more inclusive of and empowering for international varieties of English, creating the continuum was also an attempt at simplifying a very complicated argument into an easy to understand diagram which invites people to look at authenticity as essentially a fluid, dynamic, contextually and individually unique component of their class. The more I examine authenticity the more I realise that it is actually something which is negotiated between students and teachers in language learning contexts, and something which is very influential in the success of the classroom. I am still continuing to examine authenticity, specifically how it relates to motivation, but I hope this article with stimulate more discussion on the topic and to encourage people to examine authenticity as it relates to them as social and contextually situated individuals.

Read the full article ‘The authenticity continuum: Towards a definition incorporating international voices’ here


Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 40(02), 97-118. doi: doi:10.1017/S0261444807004144

Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials. Bristol: Intellect Books.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.


SSLA Announces the Albert Valdman Award Winner

Cambridge University Press and Studies in Second Language Acquisition announce the Albert Valdman Award.

This new annual award, in honor of Founding Editor Professor Albert Valdman, is for an outstanding paper in the previous year’s volume.

The 2015 award is given to Dr. Sible Andringa, University of Amsterdam, The Use of Native Speaker Norms in Critical Period Hypothesis Research, Volume 36, Issue 3.

Post written by Dr. Sible Andringa, Amsterdam, February 2015

When I heard my paper ‘The use of native speaker norms in critical period hypothesis research’ won the Albert Valdman award for outstanding publication in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, I was truly surprised. I didn’t know the award existed.  It turns out the award is new and that my paper is the first ever to receive it. Still, even if I had known about the Albert Valdman award, I would have been equally surprised. Studies in Second Language Acquisition is a high-quality and high-impact journal, and every issue invariably contains excellent work. That my paper was chosen from such an excellent array of publications– I just couldn’t believe it. What makes it even more amazing that it won, is that the paper itself was never planned:  a true case of serendipity. The paper is based on data collected within the so-called ‘Studies in Listening’ (or Stilis) project, on which I worked together with my colleagues Catherine van Beuningen, Jan Hulstijn, Nomi Olsthoorn and Rob Schoonen. The project ran from 2007 to 2011 and we planned several papers, but never one on the use of native speaker samples in second language acquisition research. I got the idea for this paper somewhere halfway through the project upon observing that our native speakers varied considerably, but I do not know how I came to relate this observation to the use of native speaker samples in CPH research. Perhaps my SLA course, in which we also discuss age effects in SLA, got me thinking. I did not start writing immediately – the planned papers obviously took priority, but I kept notes when I stumbled upon interesting publications, I started to attend relevant presentations at conferences, and I informally discussed my ideas at lunch meetings with my colleagues of the ‘Cognitive Approaches to Second Language Acquisition’ (CASLA) research group here in Amsterdam. In Stockholm in 2011, I presented a crude version of the paper at EUROSLA 21. It drew a crowd, as well as critical questions! I chewed on it for another year, occasionally spending a few minutes to update my notes. When I finally started writing the paper, about three years after I conceived the idea, it wrote itself, took no effort. And now it won the Albert Valdman award! Perhaps, then, this is the recipe for writing award-winning papers: postpone writing as long as you can, present the ideas and discuss it with colleagues until the paper is fully crystalized in your head. I want to take the opportunity to thank all my Stilis and CASLA colleagues here in Amsterdam and all others who provided feedback and helped me sharpen my thoughts, Studies in Second Language Acquisition’s reviewers and editorial team included. It is an excellent idea that Cambridge University Press and the new SSLA Editorial team decided to honor Founding Editor Albert Valdman with an award that carries his name and I am deeply honored and flattered that my article won this award.

Language perception in the East Midlands in England

Investigating East Midlands adolescents’ perception of language variation in the UK

Post written by Natalie Braber based on an article in English Today

ENG Blog post - Mar 15The concept of identity in the East Midlands can be relatively problematic as it is not immediately clear what is included in the region and where it fits in the North-South divide in the UK. It is an interesting area linguistically, because of its shared features with northern varieties, as well as southern varieties of English. It has also been argued that the Midlands form a transition zone between North and South and that a clear North/South divide cannot be made. There has been relatively little survey of the local dialects but despite this lack of empirical evidence, anecdotally it appears that language in the East Midlands remains distinctive (both within the region and compared to other regions) and locals insist there is considerable difference, for instance, between speech in the major urban centres of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.

This paper aims to extend this topic by investigating views of young people living in the East Midlands using a folk linguistic approach which looks at non-linguists’ beliefs and perceptions about the similarities of their own speech to, and differences from, the speech of others. This involves examining where participants believe dialect areas to be and what the characteristics of local speech are. This paper examines dialect identification and investigates the abilities of a sample group of adolescents to place correctly local and regional varieties of English. The main goal of this study was to start the discussion of perceptual dialectology in the region and to learn about what adolescents think and know about language variation in the East Midlands and the UK more widely. It examines in detail the accents and dialects this group believes to exist in the UK and to see how well they can recognise these.  It shows that these adolescents were not accurate at recognising local accents and were unlikely to name local towns and regions as having a distinctive accent.

Read the full article ‘Language perception in the East Midlands in England’