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Advancing the European Multilingual Experience

Periodic Report Summary 4 - ATHEME (Advancing the European Multilingual Experience)

Project Context and Objectives:
AThEME (Advancing the European Multilingual Experience) is a collaborative research project studying multilingualism in Europe. This 5-year research project was set up with funding from the European Commission, and it runs from 1 March 2014 until 28 February 2019. The main objectives of the project are: (1) to investigate cognitive, linguistic and sociological issues in multilingual Europe, (2) to assess existing public policies and practices within the areas of education and health as well as their impact on multilingualism and (3) to contribute to evidence-based policy making. AThEME uses a range of research methodology and aims to raise awareness of multilingualism among policy makers, health professionals, academics and educators.
AThEME is made up of four main research areas within which researchers (17 partner institutions) from Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom work together to study multilingualism. The first group focuses on the regional minority languages in multilingual Europe. Their main objective is to increase the general understanding of what multilingualism with regional minority languages means. From the linguistic perspective, researchers aim to contribute to the description and analysis of grammatical diversity of the various regional languages in Europe. From a cognitive point of view, researchers are interested in the effects of language and cognition in various contexts of regional multilingualism. Finally, researchers explore strategies, which can be used to successfully maintain regional bi- and multilingualism.
The second research group investigates heritage languages and heritage language users in the EU. A heritage language is one that families bring with them when they move from one country to another. Researchers first need to understand the sociolinguistic context and the factors contributing to partial language development (when the heritage language is not acquired completely) as well as the attrition of heritage languages (when speakers lose proficiency in their heritage language). Researchers also investigate the impact heritage languages have on the dominant language (typically the language spoken by the majority of the people in the country).
A third focus of research in AThEME is the relationship between multilingualism and communicative impairment (for example, stutter, dyslexia, Specific Language Impairment (SLI), aphasia). AThEME researchers first aim to increase the evidence base in order to better inform assessments and policies. The second aim is to translate this evidence base into concrete tools and applications beneficial to teachers, health care providers and others involved with (the well-being of) communicatively impaired people.
A final research area in AThEME explores the cognitive aspects of what it means to be multilingual. AThEME researchers are interested in three particular aspects: (1) to gain more knowledge of how factors like age-of-onset (the age at which an individual learns a second language) and language distance (how much one language differs from another) affect the final outcome of a person’s second language acquisition, (2) to investigate the direct effects of multilingualism on human interaction and (3) to collect more data and gain more knowledge of the relationship between language and other mental operations, like attention and memory.
In order to raise general public awareness of multilingualism, AThEME makes use of the already established public engagement and outreach programme Bilingualism Matters (BM). National branches in Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom function as platforms to inform different groups in society about AThEME’s research results, to organise workshops and other events on issues raised by this project and to build a strong, coordinated European network on multilingualism.

Project Results:
The first phase of the AThEME project focused on preparatory work such as setting up cross-center studies and experiments and the second phase was characterised by data collection, further research activities and the delivery of preliminary results. The third phase of the project was all about consolidating findings, publishing results and sharing them with all interested parties. This final phase is a continuation of the third phase, culminating in the AThEME Final Conference, which was held on the 31st of January 2019, in Brussels, Belgium.
During AThEME’s final event, AThEME researchers presented their research, focusing their TED-style talks on the opportunities and challenges relating to multilingualism across the lifespan, from childhood, through adulthood, to old age. Other AThEME researchers presented posters with their research results. Invited stakeholders also had the opportunity to give their own input during the ‘Speakers’ Corners’ covering regional, urban and individual multilingualism. Perspectives were shared on topics as varied as language planning in Scotland and the Basque Country, a mother tongue poetry initiative, the Leiden museum of languages, and the interaction of multilingualism, psychotherapy and social care.
During this final phase some of AThEME’s researchers focusing on regional minority languages in Europe published a final article on the maintenance of regional languages, in this case Basque, as compared to other European minority languages, particularly Frisian and Breton. This article examines the complex articulation between the setting up of a standard language and the accompanying political and social changes that explain the relatively successful language shift reversal evolution of Basque.
The second group (heritage languages and heritage language users in the EU) also continued to publish articles; one of them focusing on the sociological and sociolinguistic variables conditioning the acquisition of a heritage language. Other researchers investigated the emergence of new language varieties in cities in northern Europe due to increased numbers and diversity of immigrants. It offers an explanation of why in some cities there was a rapid emergence of multiethnoloects whereas a different linguistic outcome could be found in others.
AThEME researchers working on Multilingualism and Communicative Impairment continued to publish their results. One group wrote an article with recommendations for multilingualism and communicative disorders. They build on their previous results that bilingualism can offer linguistic and cognitive benefits that extend to impaired children by indicating some best practices and recommendations for parents, educators and health professionals dealing with children suffering from specific communicative impairments.
The fourth AThEME group of researchers (cognitive aspects of what it means to be multilingual) contributed to two European Policy Briefs dealing with linguistic and cognitive effects of multilingualism. This first Policy Brief aimed to increase the general understanding of interactions involving non-native speakers from a linguistic, cognitive and social perspective. The second Policy Brief, complementary to the first one, investigates children and adults speaking or learning languages in different communities and educational contexts.
Raising awareness on issues of multilingualism is one of the cornerstones of the AThEME project. During this phase the AThEME website ( was updated with the latest available publications, Policy Briefs and relevant news about the project itself. A final e-newsletter was sent to AThEME’s ever-growing network of interested individuals at the end of 2018. The national branches of the Bilingualism Matters platform continued to organise local events and also participated in larger language festivals such as the Drongo Festival in The Netherlands and Language Show Live in London.
Potential Impact:
AThEME’s aims are first and foremost directed at generating significant scientific impact. It has been designed to generate comparative, in-depth and scientifically grounded knowledge about linguistic, cognitive and sociological dimensions of multilingualism in Europe. At the level of the individual, AThEME yields insight into (measuring) an individual’s level of multilingual proficiency but also the cognitive performance of speakers with communicative impairments and of aging individuals with neurodegenerative diseases. At the level of the multilingual group, AThEME furthers the understanding of the role of language, identity and ethnicity in language development and the communicative contexts involving multilingual speakers with different language backgrounds and levels of proficiency. Finally, at the level of the multilingual society, AThEME provides accurate analyses of the differences and similarities of languages spoken in different contexts involving regional languages and dialects. This scientific impact will provide a firm foundation on which educators, health professionals and policy makers may gain more understanding of the challenges of multilingualism and can make informed decisions based on these new insights.
The second impact of the project is thus informing education and social policies at the national and European level and making concrete policy recommendations based on evidence-based research. It requires a translation from science to practice, which AThEME has done by, amongst other things, producing the following concrete results by the end of the project:
• Article on the maintenance of regional languages
• Article on heritage languages and the emergence of new language varieties in Europe
• Recommendations for multilingualism and developmental communicative disorders
• Five European Policy briefs on (1) regional minority languages, (2) heritage languages, (3) communicative impairments, (4) cognitive aspects of multilingual interaction and (5) cognitive effects of multilingualism across the lifespan.

A third impact is geared towards improving the availability of data and tools for research and policy on multilingualism. By extending the existing research database and the collection of new data, AThEME contributes to improving the availability of data on linguistic diversity in Europe. This includes collecting and analysing new data on linguistic diversity, complementing existing databases on regional languages and dialects and developing a comparative database on sociological and linguistic dimensions of heritage language competence. Language tools for determining underlying communicative impairments serving simultaneously as the basis for cognitive therapies will be especially useful for educators and clinicians.
The fourth impact relates to methodology and research strategy. AThEME uses a variety of methodologies and techniques that yield a rich and broad palate of data on multilingualism. Methods range from traditional (socio)linguistic fieldwork based on interviews and questionnaires, to experimental techniques such as sentence repetition tasks, reaction time studies as well as ERP/EEG studies. AThEME demonstrates that the integration of different methodologies in investigating a complex phenomenon like multilingualism yields valuable results.
Finally, engaging with civil society is the fifth impact of the AThEME project. By means of AThEME’s eight national platforms/networks of Bilingualism Matters, the project is facilitating dialogue between AThEME researchers and society on multilingualism. This unique strategy for sharing knowledge and engaging with various actors (through local, regional and national events) will have a long-lasting effect on overall awareness of multilingualism and provides valuable insights into current opportunities and challenges facing European multilingual citizens.
List of Websites: