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Advancing the European Multilingual Experience

Periodic Report Summary 3 - 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 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. This third phase of the project turns to consolidating findings, publishing results and sharing them with all interested parties. Sharing results was the main focus of the fourth AThEME Consortium meeting (held on the 16th-17th November 2018 in Barcelona, Spain); participants discussed how to translate research findings into concrete (policy) recommendations and other messages to a broader audience. With an increasing amount of research nearing completion and little over a year before the project ends, it is considered crucial to focus on how to share results to as many people as possible.
During this third phase the researchers focusing on regional minority languages in Europe published a further three articles. In two of these articles, a population of Italian/Sardian/English speakers was studied to (a) find out the cognitive effects of bilingualism within this population and (b) determine the effects of language distance and language exposure on multilingualism. Researchers also wrote a Policy Brief with specific policy recommendations for decision-makers dealing with regional languages. One of the recommendations in this brief outlines the importance of raising awareness of the naturalness of language change in all situations of language contact and to involve speakers of regional minority languages in language maintenance.
The second group (heritage languages and heritage language users in the EU) organised a number of workshops on heritage languages during this third phase of the project. They also published a few articles, one of which investigates the emergence of multi-ethnic dialects, in this case ‘Multiethnic London English (MLE)’, a variety of English emerging from the multi-ethnic communities in inner London.
Various groups working on Multilingualism and Communicative Impairment contributed to publications on this subject. One such publication suggests that a bilingual advantage extends to children with dyslexia. This is an exciting and important finding for all the educators, speech therapists and teachers who think that bilingualism may have a negative influence on dyslexia and therefore may provide families of dyslexic children with negative advice when it comes to bilingualism. These and other findings also feature in a recently published Policy Brief on multilingualism and communicative impairments.
The fourth AThEME group of researchers (cognitive aspects of what it means to be multilingual) published an article on foreign accents in which it is confirmed that native speakers do not change their behaviour when communicating with someone with a foreign accent. Another article that was published studied the pragmatic abilities of multi- vs. monolinguals in a French/English population. Initial discussions took place in preparation for two upcoming Policy Briefs on the cognitive aspects of multilingualism.
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 and relevant news about the project itself. A further three newsletters were sent out to AThEME’s ever-growing network of interested individuals. Short introductory video’s were also posted online, in which AThEME researchers explain in their own words what their research is about. 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 Scotland.
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 individual level, AThEME yields insight into 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. The scientific impact provides 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 heritage languages and the emergence of new language varieties in Europe
• Article (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 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, with AThEME 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
• 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 are 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 and 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 networks of Bilingualism Matters, the project facilitates 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 opportunities and challenges facing European multilingual citizens.
List of Websites: