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Multiple Perspectives on Grammatical Gender in the Bilingual Lexicon

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GenBiLex (Multiple Perspectives on Grammatical Gender in the Bilingual Lexicon)

Reporting period: 2017-08-01 to 2019-07-31

Grammatical gender is a linguistic feature present in many of the world’s languages that divides nouns into different word classes. As there is typically no clear link between the meaning of the noun and its grammatical gender (e.g. ‘car’, which is feminine in French, ‘la voiture’; masculine in Spanish, ‘el coche’; and neuter in German, ‘das Auto’), the feature poses difficulties to bilinguals at all levels of proficiency. For this reason, grammatical gender comprises an important area of research in order to better understand how language information is represented in the bilingual mental lexicon and how bilinguals use this information in their languages. A better understanding of language in bilinguals is undoubtedly relevant in society given the prevalence of bi- and multilingualism in Europe and around the world. Such knowledge contributes not only to a variety of areas of scientific research, but also provides the basis on which language teachers build curricula and informs language policy at multiple levels of government.

The overall objectives of GenBiLex were to provide a broader and more complete perspective on grammatical gender in bilinguals by including speakers with diverse bilingual profiles and incorporating language acquisition, psycholinguistic and theoretical linguistic perspectives. The research carried out in GenBiLex showed that when working in a non-native language, bilinguals are almost always affected by the gender of the noun in their native language, even if the languages are very different (e.g. Latvian and Spanish). When a word has the same gender in both languages (e.g. ‘shoe’, masculine in both German, ‘der Schuh’, and Spanish, ‘el zapato’), bilinguals are faster to understand the word while also being less prone to making mistakes (e.g. ‘die Schuh’ instead of ‘der Schuh’). However, this does not hold when the languages have fundamentally different ways of classifying the nouns, such as Dutch (common, ‘de schoen’; and neuter, ‘het huis’) and Spanish (masculine, ‘el zapato’; and feminine, ‘la casa’). Even though both Dutch and Spanish divide nouns into two grammatical genders, the labels for and the underlying system in these genders is different enough that the gender from the native language does not affect the non-native language in the same way.
One broad-focus and two targeted experiments were carried out in GenBiLex. The broad-focus experiment was a task in which participants were asked to choose the correct article for each noun in Spanish, with the aim of determining whether diverse speaker groups are affected differently by similarities and differences between their native and non-native languages. For this experiment, adult native speakers of Norwegian, German, Flemish, Dutch and Latvian were recruited. Results showed that the performance of all speaker groups, with the exception of native speakers of Dutch, was significantly affected by whether the words had the same or different genders in speakers’ native and non-native languages.

The first targeted experiment, a task where speakers were asked to indicate whether the label presented (e.g. ‘la gata’, the female cat) matched the animal picture, was performed in both Spanish and German by native speakers of German. The aim of this experiment was to address a theoretical debate in linguistics regarding whether biological gender and grammatical gender are the same feature or two separate features in language. The results indicated that the interaction between the biological gender of an animal and the grammatical gender of the label for it is highly complex and also subject to individual variation across speakers.

The second targeted experiment, two versions of a task in which participants were asked to indicate whether individual words were real words in Spanish, were presented to native speakers of Latvian. This experiment examined nuances in the effects found in the broad-focus experiment, using a particular emphasis an on lesser studied language, Latvian. The findings confirmed the effects from the previous experiment, additionally showing that speakers were more prone to influence from the native language when the task included both the native and non-native language.

Data for GenBiLex was collected through collaborations and local partners in Norway, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Latvia and Spain. The results of the project were presented at six international conferences and given as research talks at six special events. One of these presentations was part of the project’s international workshop, Uniting Gender Research.
GenBiLex contributed novel findings regarding grammatical gender in the bilingual mental lexicon from a wider range of more diverse language pairings than had previously been studied. The project used complementary experimental approaches and encompassed different linguistic research perspectives.

This research has deep-reaching impacts on society as language affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives, and bi- or multilingualism is the reality for much of the global population. In the European context, GenBiLex’s inclusion of Latvian, a lesser-studied official European language, and Flemish, a minority European language, aligns with importance given to multilingualism in the founding of the EU and its Charter of Fundamental Rights. A better understanding of how bilinguals use and learn languages is key in informing language teaching and also language policy at local, national, and international levels.
GenBiLex wordsift