Project description

Project outline

LAILA-BICS is a longitudinal research project at the University of Innsbruck (English department), headed by Prof. Ulrike Jessner-Schmid. It started in March of 2011 and is set to run until at least the spring of 2014. It is funded through a grant from the Autonome Provinz of Bolzano and the "Amt für Hochschulförderung".


What is language attrition?

In a nutshell, language attrition means forgetting a language. You probably know the feeling: you're in a foreign country or are confronted with a foreigner and suddenly you have to dredge up your high-school French or your Spanish from that class you took a few years back ... and there's really only one way to desribe how you feel: rusty!

If you know what we're talking about, you're already familiar with the phenomenon of language attrition, which is another word for "the loss of language skills in the individual over time" (de Bot & Weltens 1995). Basically, language attrition looks at how people forget a language they know if they're not using it.

There are two areas of research that are related, but are not the same as language attrition. Language shift comes from sociolinguistics, and looks at how one language can be supplanted or even replaced by another in speech communities where two or more languages are in contact. For instance, in Spanish-speaking immigrant groups in North America, the older generation may speak nearly no English, the middle one might be bilingual, and the next generation may know little to no Spanish. Language loss comes from a neurolinguistic backgound and looks at people who have trouble speaking or understanding, or have lost language skills because they have suffered some form of brain damage (typically caused by trauma, illness, stroke, etc.). Language attrition is neither of these: we are looking at the non-pathological loss of certain language skills in a healthy individual person, not a speech community.

Many studies have looked at first-language attrition, or at how people forget the language they grew up speaking. This is often the case in migrants who move to a place where a different language from their native language is spoken, and where they stop using their first language as much, or even stop using it alltogether. The changes they experience in their native/first language are called language attrition.

Another, smaller number of studies look at what happens to the languages that people learn (in a formal context such as school) when they don't use them any more, or use them less. LAILA-BICS is one of these projects.


What are 'the dynamics of multilingualism'?

For a long time, most people didn't really know how the minds of those who know more than one language really worked, since scholars mostly thought in terms of "one brain-one language". And since bi/multilinguals were only considered 'good' if they knew their languages as well as any monolingual speaker (of either language), bilinguals were expected to work as though they were basically two monolinguals in one person ... and if they didn't "measure up" in one of their languages, they were seen as inferior. Language systems were seen as separate from one another - or at least that's how people thought it should be.

Nowadays, we know that languages within a person are not completely separated from one another, even if people don't necessarily mix them when they speak. Instead, we see a person's language system as interconnected with many other systems (other parts of the mind and the outside world). In a multilingual person, these languages are all subsystems of the overall language system, and all interact with each other and with themselves. Influence from one system on another (or others) goes in all directions, not just one way.

When it comes to learning a (foreign) language, many traditional models of language growth took a fairly simple, linear approach: you put a certain amount into the system, and the learner makes a certain amount of progress.  Learning meant an ordered sequence of individual steps.

If we look at biological growth models, we can see that nature doesn't work this way. Things move in fits, spurts, stops and starts, and there are so many factors that influence each other that it is impossible to say that a certain input is guaranteed to produce such-and-such a result. Another factor that is a weakness in traditional growth models is that they only look at increase, but not at decrease. In other words, there is lots of research on language learning, but not on language un-learning and forgetting.

It would be logical to think that in order for a language to remain at a certain level, all we need to do is nothing at all - but we know from experience this is not true. While humans are certainly capable of knowing and using more than one language, they are competing for limited cognitive resources ... and we all know that staying good at something takes practise. Since multilinguals have more languages competing for these resources, they either have to invest more time in maintaining their langauges, or make do with the same amount - which makes them more vulnerable to attrition in at least part of their language system. More simply put: that a monolingual will use his or her language very little or not at all is highly unlikely; that a multilingual will not use at least one of his/her languages that much is fairly probable.

All in all, language(s) within the individual can be seen as a dynamic system: a person and their languages cannot be understood in isolation from their surrounding environment. Such a person's language system is made up of several subsystems that are in constant interaction with themselves, each other and with the surrounding environment. Language systems are therefore in a process “of constant adjustment to the changing environment and internal conditions aiming at maintenance of a state of (dynamic) balance” (Herdina & Jessner 2002: 86).


What are we looking at?

In LAILA-BICS, we want to find out what happens to multilingual people's skills in their languages after they stop learning them, and maybe stop using one or the other alltogether. We also want to see which skills, if any, are retained better than others, and if there are certain qualities multilinguals acquire that don't change even if their language skills do.


Who are our test subjects?

Our participants are multilingual young adults who are finishing their formal education. Our first meeting takes place before they take their school-leaving exam (or Matura in Austria/Italy), and then again after a certain period has passed (between 12 and 24 months).

To participate in LAILA-BICS, candidates must:

  • be in their final year of high school
  • have learned two or more foreign languages over the course of their schooling. Students who grew up with more than one language may also participate, but are not our focus group

Candidates don't have to be graduating in any of the foreign languages or have plans to continue learning them after high school. In fact, we're very happy to include students who aren't even particularly interested in languages - so long as they've learned two so far.


How do we test?

In LAILA-BICS, we look at various background factors (education and language, attitude, interests) and at students' skills in their different languages. In addition, we also look at language awareness and other indicators about how people think and produce language.

Participants have to fill in a questionnaire and some written language-based tests, do some computer-based puzzles and various speaking tasks. These tasks always take place in an informal and relaxed atmosphere: there are no wrong answers, there is no pressure and no marks, and all the results are confidential.

The first testing session is generally held at the school to make participation more convenient for students. The written part is usually done with the whole class at once (either as a paper-and-pencil version or online), and the oral interviews are done individually with each person.

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