The MAYLL Project

Project head: Mag. Kathrin Oberhofer

What is the MAYLL project?

MAYLL stands for Metalinguistic Abilities in Young Language Learners. The aim of this project is to examine more closely what effects learning a foreign in pre-school has on children's abstract thinking, and on how they understand and process language(s).

Who is behind the project?

MAYLL is part of the doctoral thesis of Mag. Kathrin Oberhofer, a linguistic researcher and PhD student at the University of Innsbruck. The project is financed in part by a research grant from the Tyrolean Science Fund (Tiroler Wissenschaftsfonds, Projektnr. 115642).


A large body of research has shown that children who are brought up speaking more than one language (native bilinguals and multilinguals) process and store language differently from their monolingual peers: they show a more abstract understanding of language(s) in areas such as word-meaning connection, as well as a higher degree of control over cognitive processing (e.g. ignoring meaning to focus on form) in judging or producing language. These are manifestations of so-called metalinguistic ability, a complex of skills and awareness which can have an influence on linguistic skills in general, as well as on later language learning. Native bilinguals also show difference in non-language specific areas of cognition, such as executive function. (for an overview, see Bialystok 2009). However, these studies have focused almost exclusively on native bi/multilinguals, and usually found these advantages only in those who had a fairly well-developed proficiency in both their languages.

Pilot Study

As part of her Masters thesis, Kathrin Oberhofer set out to examine whether similar differences could be found in children who begin learning a foreign language (i.e. one not used in their home or private environments) at a young age (i.e. before beginning formal schooling). This project involving 41 children in western Austria (Oberhofer 2008) found that those children attending English-language or bilingual Kindergartens outperformed those in monolingual German Kindergartens on several tests (sometimes significantly). They demonstrated a more abstract understanding of language (they were more willing to accept and use new handles for familiar objects), and a higher degree of control in their cognitive processing (they were better able to ignore meaning and focus on grammatical form in both a grammaticality judgment and correction tasks).

Current research

The aim of the MAYLL project is to examine more closely what effects learning a foreign language at pre-school age has on linguistic awareness and cognitive processing, and to see if similar phenomena observed in native bilinguals can be found in children who are not exposed to two languages from infancy.
To this end some 100 children aged 3-6 will be compared on various measures of cognitive, linguistic and metalinguistic abilities. The oldest children will be examined in a cross-sectional approach, while the development of the younger children will be followed over a two-year period.

The children involved in the study are native speakers of German who attend either monolingual or English-language / bilingual Kindergartens in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Linz, as well as in and around Munich, Germany. In addition, we are happy to welcome a trilingual Kindergarten (German-Italian-Slovenian) from Carinthia. Field testing began in October 2011.

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Sources cited

Bialystok, Ellen (2009) Bilingualism - The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 12(1), 3-11.

Oberhofer, Kathrin (2008) "Metalinguistic Ability and Early Foreign Language Learning.” Diploma thesis submitted to the University of Innsbruck.

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