Metacognition in multilingual development:

From multilingual children to polyglots

Obergurgl (Austria)

September 18-21, 2019



The DyME research group and the Department of English at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, are pleased to invite scholars, researchers and postgraduate students working on metacognition and multilingualism to submit abstracts to the conference Metacognition in Multilingual Development: From multilingual children to polyglots, which will be held at the University Center in Obergurgl, Austria, from 18th to 21st September 2019. The conference starts on the 18th September in the late afternoon with the reception and ends on 21st at 1 pm.

Metacognition is an essential tool for lifelong learning and flexibility in rapidly changing multicultural and multilingual societies. The conference aims at providing theoretical insights into the relevance of research on metacognition in multilingual development in a variety of settings.


We welcome papers on a wide range of topics including:

  • Multilingual awareness
  • Metacognitive abilities and awareness
  • Language learning strategies
  • Subjective theories on learning
  • Self assessment
  • Language maintenance and management
  • Metacognition in teaching

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Dr. Ellen Bialystok, OC, PhD

Metacognition: Where Language and Thought Converge


The search for bilingual effects on metalinguistic and metacognitive ability in children has long been a central part of the research effort to understand the effects of bilingualism more broadly. Although the initial question was motivated by interest in language-specific development, the research was crucial in revealing the extent of these effects for nonverbal processing. This talk will describe the main developments in this research over the past 40 years and explain how the search for metalinguistic differences between monolingual and bilingual children led to the identification of powerful effects of bilingual experience on cognitive development. 

In the early stages of this research, the prevailing view was that language and thought developed in separate tracks with little influence on each other. However, the shift from nativist to more cognitive-based (or interactionist) models of language acquisition opened the possibility for language-thought interactions in developing these skills. Placing nonverbal cognitive processing into the definition of metalinguistic ability led to hypothesis that bilingual experience could directly influence cognitive outcomes, whether or not there were linguistic implications.

Subsequent research over the past 20 years has uncovered a rich and complex set of findings demonstrating the deep interactions between language and thought and the compelling ways in which bilingualism modifies cognition. These effects are traced to the constant need for bilinguals to constantly select the target language from the jointly-activated competitor, creating an ongoing need for selective attention. Such differences in selective attention between monolinguals and bilinguals have been found across the lifespan, beginning in infancy. Because of the centrality of selective attention in all cognitive processing, these differences have enormous consequence for cognitive performance.


Dr. Carol Griffiths 

What is successful language learning?


Throughout history, there have been some who appear to be extraordinarily successful at learning languages, from Mezzofanti in the 18th century (who evidently knew around 70 languages) to more recent polyglots such as Alexander Arguelles, who, according to his own website, can read “pretty much anything that has been written” in 38 languages. But how do they do it?

Adopting a case study approach, this talk will take a look at two contemporary learners who appear to have been more successful than average. With his record of 13 languages, and a lifetime spent teaching language, Andrew (from USA) claims the status of a hyperpolyglot. Although he does not claim to know as many languages, in the high-level IELTS exam, Gökhan (a teacher of English at a university in Istanbul) managed to achieve a band score of 9 (which is reckoned to be at native-speaker level), a rare achievement for an adult who has done all his learning in a foreign language environment (Turkey)

This paper will compare these two learners, who, although in some ways different, are similar in that they both achieved high levels of language learning success in their varying ways. It will also consider their cases in the light of various factors which are often believed to influence language learning (including aptitude, age, beliefs, culture, ethnicity, identity, strategies, style, autonomy, personality, motivation, investment, gender, affect).

These factors will be further examined by reporting a small-scale study in which a group of successful learners was asked to rate the factors on a scale from 5 (strongly agree) to 1 (strongly disagree) according to their own perceptions. The results from this study will then be compared with the findings from the case studies described above in an effort to extract some general insights from the data.

The talk will conclude with some final thoughts about achieving success in language learning.


Dr. Alexander Arguelles

The Metacognitive Strategies of Polyglots:  Reflections on From Start to Finnish 


This keynote speech reports on a self-reflective case study on the strategies I employ as mature polyglot embarking upon the intensive study of a new language for the first time in decades. Having built up my repertoire of languages through formal schooling and an obsessively intensive 6-year period of wide ranging study in my post-doctoral years, in the year 2002 I decided that I could only take a smaller number of languages to higher levels of mastery.  Therefore, I not only stopped learning new languages, but even “aborted” many languages so as to concentrate upon developing advanced skills in my select group.  However, I have now taken a position as director of intensive immersion programs at an institute that offers culturally authentic settings in architecturally authentic villages for 16 different languages. Of these 16, the only one that I have never studied in any form is Finnish.  So that I can understand the conversational methodology employed at Concordia as an insider, from the 17ththough the 30thof June, I will participate in a two-week intensive immersion program in the language.  In the few free hours the program allows in the evening, I will employ my own methodologies of shadowing and scriptorium internalization didactic texts.  Upon conclusion, I will write a reflective metacognitive report and analysis of the experience for the benefit of Concordia.  As this is a project of the institute, it will be filmed as a documentary by the marketing department and later analyzed in conjunction with Dr. Heidi Hamilton, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.  The project is entitled From Start to Finnish, and in this keynote speech, I will present the first fruits of the study. 


Prof. Susan Coetzee-van Roy

Language awareness from the grassroots: Experiences of multilingual South African urban youth


The importance of the broad concept ‘language awareness’ as a contributing factor in the acquisition, learning and use of languages is well-known (see James, 1999; Cenoz, Gorter & May, 2017). The focus of research on language awareness is on formal educational contexts (Jessner, 2008; Hofer & Jessner, 2019; Jessner, Allgäuer-Hackl & Hofer, 2016), mainly because language learning in education settings is associated with explicit and conscious attention to language rules (Ellis, 2008); while language acquisition in natural settings is associated with implicit and social strategies (Alptekin, 2007; Ellis, 2008). 

Some researchers relate language acquisition in natural contexts in specific ways to school language learning. James (1999: 107), for example, states, “The school is there to fine-tune the makeshift FL [foreign language] repertoires which learners have developed through language contact, exposure to comprehensible input, and the use of coping strategies”. In contexts like Africa, Asia and India where “multilingual acquisition has taken place for centuries outside formal schooling” (Canagarajah, 2007: 933), the acquisition of large parts of the multilingual repertoires of large numbers of people is not viewed as “makeshift language learning” that would one day be corrected in school. Han (2013: 83) uses the concept grassroots multilingualism to refer to this long-standing and everyday practice of “expanding multilingual repertoires without instruction” in the contexts mentioned above. Canagarajah (2007: 924) states that “We need more insider studies from multilingual (especially non-Western) communities and data from outside the classroom” to advance language acquisition and learning research in general.  In this paper I argue that we need more insider studies about language awareness from multilingual non-Western communities like South Africa where many languages are acquire outside the classroom. 

The “Dynamic Model of Multilingualism” (DMM) proposed by Herdina and Jessner (2002) provides an integrated framework for a study of urban South African youth multilingualism because it enables a holistic view of all the languages included in the multilingual repertoires of the participants (those learnt in schools and those acquired outside schools).  In the DMM, language awareness is viewed more specifically as a function of the “Language Maintenance Effort” (LME), together with language use (Herdina and Jessner, 2002: 106; Jessner, 2008: 276). Furthermore, multilingual awareness, “which is composed of meta- and cross-linguistic awareness”, is seen as the vital factor in multilingual learning and use (Jessner, Allgäuer-Hackl & Hofer, 2016:160). In the tradition of the DMM, metalinguistic awareness (MLA) “refers to the ability to focus attention on language as an object in itself or to think abstractly about language and, consequently, to play with or manipulate language”; and cross-linguistic awareness (XLA) “is understood as the awareness of the relationships between languages … expressed ‘tacitly or explicitly during language production and use’ (Jessner, 2006, p. 116)” (Jessner, Allgäuer-Hackl, and Hofer, 2016:160).

Within the framework of the DMM, the focus of this paper will be on the multilingual awareness (meta- and cross-linguistic) of multilingual South African urban youth towards the additional languages that they added to their multilingual repertoires outside the school.  The data that will be included in the paper come from several studies conducted in the Vaal Triangle region in South Africa from 1998 to 2019 and the data sets include: a large scale Language Repertoire Survey (conducted in 1998, 2010 and 2015 with about 2000 participants), language history interviews with two multilingual people, interviews that focused on the multilingual experiences of students (about 20 interviews), interviews about multilingual experiences with six “language experts” and findings from 150 language portraits of students.  All these research instruments require metalinguistic reflection on the languages known by the participants. The aim of the paper is to contribute information about language awareness and acquisition from the grassroots in this context to complement the growing body of excellent research about the nature and role of language awareness in school contexts. Ultimately, the findings would enable a reflection on the role of language awareness in the maintenance of these extended multilingual repertoires.


Alptekin, C. (2007). Foreign language learning strategy choice: Naturalistic versus instructed language acquisition. Journal of Theory and Practice in Education, 3(1), 4-11.

Canagarajah, S. (2007). Lingua franca English, multilingual communities, and language acquisition. The modern language journal91, 923-939.

Cenoz, J., Gorter, D. & May, S.  (Eds.) 2017. Language awareness and multilingualism. Springer.

Ellis, R. (2008). The Study of Second Language Acquisition(2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Herdina, P., & Jessner, U. (2002). A dynamic model of multilingualism: Perspectives of change in psycholinguistics (Vol. 121). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Hofer, B. & Jessner, U. (2019). Multilingualism at the primary level in South Tyrol: how does multilingual education affect young learners’ metalinguistic awareness and proficiency in L1, L2 and L3? The Language Learning Journal, 47(1): 76-87.

James, C. (1999) Language Awareness: Implications for the Language Curriculum. Language Culture and Curriculum, 12:1, 94-115.

Jessner, U.  2008.  A DST Model of Multilingualism and the Role of Metalinguistic Awareness. The Modern Language Journal, 92(ii): 270–283.

Jessner, U., Allgäuer-Hackl, E., & Hofer, B. (2016). Emerging multilingual awareness in educational contexts: From theory to practice. Canadian Modern Language Review72(2), 157-182.




Nick Ellis
University Michigan, United States

Gessica de Angelis
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Asta Haukas
University of Bergen, Norway

Philip Herdina
Leopold Franzens Universität Innsbruck, Austria

David Lasagabaster
University of Pais Vasco, Spain

Daniele Moore
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada

Judit Navracsics
University of Pannonia, Hungary

Anat Stavans
Beit Berl College, Israel

Eva Vetter
University of Vienna, Austria

Magdalena Wrembel
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland 



Ulrike Jessner-Schmid

Emese Malzer-Papp

Elisabeth Allgäuer-Hackl

Manon Megens

Monika Kirner-Ludwig


With friendly support of:


Land Tirol



City of Innsbruck



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