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Advancing the European Multilingual Experience

Periodic Report Summary 2 - 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 March 2014 until March 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 multi-lingualism.
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:
While the first phase of the project focused on preparatory work such as setting up cross-center studies and experiments, the second phase is characterised by data collection, further research activities and the delivery of preliminary results. In order to facilitate discussion and exchange ideas, the third AThEME Consortium meeting was held in Verona, Italy, on the 15th – 16th of September 2016. Over 60 participants consisting of AThEME researchers, Advisory Board members, the AThEME Ethics Advisor as well as a few other guests attended the two-day meeting.
During this second phase the researchers focusing on regional minority languages in Europe continued to analyse regional minority languages. Two online databases were created, one focusing on local Romance and German minority languages and dialects and the other on Basque language varieties. These databases allow for language data collection and also function as depositories for preserving collected data. The databases help raise awareness about linguistic diversity in Europe and the necessity of minority language preservation. Researchers also published an article illustrating how minority languages take over features from majority languages and vice versa.
The second group (heritage languages and heritage language users in the EU) hosted the 2015 Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition conference, during which a workshop dedicated to heritage languages was organized. The published report, which includes the papers presented during this biannual conference, showcases the most recent research on first and second language acquisition, heritage language and bilingual acquisition, language pathology, as well as the acquisition of sign language.
Various groups working on Multilingualism and Communicative Impairment are currently investigating the effect bilingualism has on disorders such as developmental dyslexia and specific language impairments. Preliminary findings suggest that bilingualism does not negatively impact children with dyslexia; instead it may even have positive effects (improving the metalinguistic ability and morphological awareness of their languages). Research also continues on the well-being, social integration, as well as potential language deterioration connected with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease of older bilingual adults.
The fourth AThEME group of researchers (cognitive aspects of what it means to be multilingual) published four articles providing insights into how and why people succeed or fail at being multilingual. The first article deals with language attrition, that is the process of losing a language when not using it. The second article discusses developmental differences between early multi- and mono-linguals in pragmatic abilities. The researchers conclude that bilingual children have an advantage when it comes to executive control, which supports activities such as high-level thought, multi-tasking and sustained attention. The third and fourth articles deal with the impact of the distances between native and second languages on morphological processing of the speakers and with the functioning of bilingual language control.
In an effort to raise awareness of AThEME research, a new website was built ( In this way many different audiences (parents, teachers, policy makers and the general public) have access to AThEME research results and are able to connect with the national branches of the platform Bilingualism Matters. During various language festivals, such as the Drongo Festival in The Netherlands, AThEME researchers engaged with the public by presenting their research and even introduced a model puzzle (educational tool) they designed to enhance older children’s understanding of different language structures.
Potential Impact:
AThEME’s aims are first and foremost directed at generating significant scientific impact. AThEME 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. Highlighted scientific impact results:
- Article on cognitive effects of bilingualism in minority languages
- Article on heritage languages and the emergence of new language varieties in Europe
- Article on behavioural and ERP studies on Specific Language Impairment and Developmental Dyslexia
- Article on the maintenance of regional languages
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 does by producing the following concrete results by the end of the project:
- Report on the use of multilingualism for cognitive enhancement and healthy aging
- Report on the design of new teaching methods and remediation tools for dyslexia
- Recommendations for multilingualism and developmental communicative disorders.
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 expected 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. As soon as project results are available, AThEME’s unique strategy for spreading knowledge and engaging with various actors in society by means of the eight national platforms/networks Bilingualism Matters. By continuing to organise events with the direct involvement of the AThEME researchers and working to integrate feedback from audiences into future plans for both impact and research, AThEME ensures a project that is rooted in European society.
List of Websites: