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The Multilingual Mind: Lecture series on multilingualism across disciplines


During the winter semester 2020/2021, an online lecture series was hosted every Tuesday at 17.00 - 18.30 (CEST/UTC+02). The speakers presented research findings on multilingualism across different disciplines, in line with the MultiMind project (linguistics, education, psychology, neuroscience, speech & language pathology). The lecture series was aimed at everyone interested in Multilingualism. 

Zoom room:

Organisation: Fachbereich Linguistik, Zentrum für Mehrsprachigkeit, Projekt MultiMind





The programme can be also downloaded here


Prof Dr Theodoros Marinis (University of Konstanz) & Duygu Özge (Middle East Technical University): How do bilingual children acquire complex syntax in their heritage vs. the majority language: Turkish-English speaking children in the UK

There is growing research on the acquisition of heritage (minority) languages but the vast majority of studies has focused on the heritage language without comparing it to the majority language. In this talk we will present data from a study investigating how bilingual Turkish-English children growing up in the UK acquire relative clauses (RCs) in both Turkish and English and how the pattern of acquisition compares to monolingual children growing up in Turkey and in the UK. RCs are syntactically complex structures that develop relatively late and show cross-linguistic differences between Turkish and English in terms of word order and morpho-syntax. As a result, they offer an opportunity to investigate whether or not they will be missing or not fully acquired in the heritage language as well as whether there will be effects of cross-linguistic influence from the stronger/majority language (English) to the weaker/heritage language (Turkish) or vice versa.


Prof Jeanine Treffers-Daller (University of Reading): Explaining individual differences in Executive Functions performance in multilinguals: the impact of code-switching and alternating between Multicultural Identity Styles

This study sheds new light on the relative impact of code-switching and culture on Executive Functions (EFs) in bilinguals. The evidence on the relative contribution of culture and bilingualism to executive functions is not well understood, because disentangling language, culture and immigration status is very difficult. The novelty of our approach was to keep the language pair and immigration status constant, whilst the cultural identity of participants was systematically varied, and measured at the individual level (not just at group level). Two groups of Turkish-English bilinguals, all adult immigrants to the UK, took part in the study, but one group (n = 29) originated from mainland Turkey and the other (n=28) from Cyprus. We found that the bilinguals experienced smaller Conflict Effects on a Flanker task measuring inhibition, by comparison with monolingual British participants (n= 30). The key variable explaining EF performance variance at the individual level was bilinguals’ Multicultural Identity Style. In particular those who indicated that they attempted to alternate between different British and Turkish (Cypriot) identity styles were found to have shorter RTs on incongruent trials of the Flanker task. The two multicultural identity variables  together explained 32% in EFs (overall explained variance 49%). Thus, the data provide strong evidence for the impact of culture on EFs. We suggest that it is multiculturals’ daily practice in alternating between cultural frames (or mixing these) which gives them a training in context-sensitivity, and this gives them an advantage over monolinguals in a Flankers task. Our approach, which brings together models from cross-cultural psychology, bilingualism and executive functioning, illustrates the importance of theory building in which sociolinguistic and cultural variables are integrated into models of EFs.

17.11. 20

Sarah von Grebmer zu Wolfsthurn, Leticia Pablos Robles and Niels O. Schiller (Leiden University): Cross-linguistic interference in multilingual speakers - an ERP study

Acquiring foreign languages, in particular grammatical gender in adulthood has been associated with a number of difficulties in terms of reaching native-like proficiency levels, for which studies have suggested a biological or social basis. This study is focused on another potential explanation, also known as cross-linguistic interference (hereafter CLI). This is the interaction of the gender systems of languages learners already know (i.e. they are fluent in) and those that they are in the process of learning. 

The study aimed to investigate whether and how gender congruency and cognate status modulate cross-linguistic interference effects in low-proficient late language learners. Our participants were German native speakers with a B1/B2 level of Spanish. The aims of the study were the following: first, we explored CLI from a behavioural perspective as well as an electrophysiological (EEG) perspective. We wanted to explore the following questions: whether processing accuracy and response latencies of Spanish noun phrases was modulated by gender congruency and cognate status, whether a P600 effect could be present in late language learners, and finally, whether this P600 effect was modulated by gender congruency or cognate status. 

Behavioural results demonstrated cross-linguistic interference of grammatical gender systems. Further, we present evidence for the sensitivity of late learners to syntactic violations (P600 effect) already in early acquisition stages. However, participants did not seem to be susceptible to influences from inherent noun properties such as gender congruency and cognate status, which provides limited evidence for traceable CLI effects at the neuronal level. 

Our results not only provide a novel insight into cross-linguistic interference in late language learners, but also contribute to the discussion around the neural correlates of grammatical gender processing and sensitivity to syntactic violations in early acquisition stages.


Prof Dr Bernhard Brehmer (University of Konstanz): Age effects in bilingual acquisition: Observations from different groups of Polish-German bilinguals

The impact of age on the linguistic development of bilinguals is one of the core issues in research on bilingualism, both with regard to language acquisition and attrition. Age can be investigated from different perspectives: First, the chronological age of bilingual individuals represents an important benchmark for evaluating the degree of attainment (or attrition) in both languages. Second, age of onset, i.e. the age when exposure to the respective languages began, has led to the distinction between different types of bilinguals in language acquisition research (simultaneous bilinguals, early sequential bilinguals, adult L2 learners etc.). In my talk, I am going to address both issues by looking at (i) different age groups of Polish-German bilinguals and (ii) different types of Polish-German bilinguals according to their age of onset (simultaneous vs. early successive bilinguals). The focus will be on Polish and on the acquisition of two properties: (a) null subjects and (b) word order in complex predicates. Polish is a prototypical pro-drop language which allows the omission of subject pronouns because the subject referent can be easily established due to subject-verb agreement. Furthermore, infinitives normally immediately follow the auxiliary in case of compound predicates in Polish, but discontinuous structures may occur due to requirements of information structure. 

In three research projects we first investigated the acquisition (and attrition) of both properties in several age groups of Polish-German bilinguals who grew up in Germany with Polish as their heritage language: (i) child bilinguals (aged 3-10), (ii) adolescent bilinguals (aged 15-17) and young adult bilinguals (aged 19-38). In another project, we looked at the effect of age of onset for the acquisition of both properties and depending on the status of Polish as a heritage language (Polish-German bilinguals growing up in Germany) and as a majority language (Polish-German bilinguals growing up in Poland). In the current talk, I will present some of the main results of these research projects which revealed an interesting interplay of (delayed) acquisition and subsequent attrition as well as age of onset effects in the acquisition of both properties.

1.12. 20

Prof Ianthi Tsimpli (University of Cambridge): Multilingualism in underprivileged contexts

Much research in multilingualism and its effects on cognition and language ability has focused on individuals in western societies. Socioeconomic status, language of education and language prestige have been identified as some of the factors that appear to influence bi/multilingual individuals’  linguistic and cognitive skills although most research on the role of bilingualism on cognition has not considered such factors in much detail. I will focus on multilingualism in India, one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world (UNESCO, 2009). Linguistic variation across Indian children is vast and includes variation in the number of home languages used, societal/community languages, official medium of instruction in schools and actual language practices in the classroom. As language is the primary vehicle of education and learning, variation in any of the above measures of multilingualism can affect the language experience of the school child and have knock-on effects on the development of school skills (basic and higher literacy and numeracy), or cognition. Focusing on data from the MultiLila project (Tsimpli et al, 2019) from primary school children coming from deprived to severely deprived socioeconomic backgrounds, I will try to disentangle how language experience, linguistic diversity in the child’s immediate environment (school, family, community) and the medium of instruction affect learners’ school skills and cognitive abilities. 

15.12. 20

Michal Korenar (University of Reading): Bilingualism and creativity: The effects of bilingual experiences of interpreters and translators on cognitive control and creativity

Mounting evidence suggests that bilinguals have a creative advantage compared to monolinguals. Creativity, that is the production of outcomes that are both original and useful, fuels scientific discovery, promotes societal development, and drives innovation. Evidence offering a possible explanation for the link between creativity and bilingualism comes largely from studies which investigate the effects of bilingualism on cognitive control (CC) —a set of mental processes that enable humans to control their behaviour to achieve goals. CC is thought to (i.) be enhanced in bilinguals due to persistent conflict in their minds from choosing between two competing linguistic alternatives, and to (ii.) play a prominent role in creative thinking. However, research on both cognitive control and creativity in bilinguals has yielded divergent results as not all the previous studies presented evidence that bilinguals hold an advantage in cognitive control (Paap et al., 2016) or creativity (Lange et al., 2020). Notably, studies on CC in bilinguals which considered bilingual experience-based factors such as age of acquisition, frequency and quality of switching between languages, or immersion in a bilingual environment, produced far more consistent results (Luk & Bialystok, 2013). A similar trend can be found in the literature on creativity in bilinguals, since code-switching practices (Kharkhurin & Wei, 2015), language proficiency (Hommel et al., 2011), or training in interpreting (Kim & Lim, 2019) impact on creativity. These results challenge the common assumption that bilinguals are more creative in general and highlight the need to consider individual bilingual experiences when investigating creativity in bilinguals.  

In the present project, I aim to throw new light on the relationship between bilingual experiences and creative thinking in a study among three groups of Czech-English bilinguals (n=114) who are expected to differ widely in terms of their bilingual experiences: interpreters (n = 29), translators (n = 37) and bilinguals without professional experience (n = 47). The participants completed two commonly used creativity tasks, a CC task, intelligence test, and questionnaires measuring participants’ length of exposure to both languages, the age of onset of language acquisition, language proficiency, immersion in bilingual language use, and engagement in code-switching. Such a wide range of measures of the bilingual experience constitutes an unprecedented opportunity to rigorously investigate the relationship between bilingualism and creative thinking. I will argue that interpreters and translators differ systematically from those who do not use two languages in their professional lives, and that differences in the bilingual experience of these groups impact on their performance on tasks measuring CC and creativity. This study therefore illustrates that the everyday life experience of bilinguals needs to be studied carefully in studies of CC and creativity. The talk concludes by presentation of future directions of this research, including the planned analyses of MRI data, and implications for studies on bilingualism and creativity in general.

12.1. 21

Jasmijn Bosch (University Milano Bicocca): Predictive processing and cross-linguistic influence in bilingual children

Listeners process speech rapidly and incrementally, and monolingual children are known to use morphosyntactic cues to anticipate upcoming words from a very young age. Using a visual world eye-tracking paradigm, the present study investigated linguistic prediction in bilingual children, whose online processing may be different even when offline comprehension is on target. Specifically, we examined whether children could anticipate upcoming nouns on the basis of gender and number agreement on the preceding article. By comparing different groups of bilingual children and monolingual Italian children, we aimed to test the effects of cross-linguistic influence and language proficiency on predictive processing. 

In Experiment 1, we tested anticipation based on grammatical gender in German-Italian bilingual children (aged 6 to 9) living either in Italy or in Germany. The results showed that children processed sentences fast and efficiently by relying on predictive mechanisms. Furthermore, in an Italian task (but not in a German task), we found that children exhibited a ‘gender congruency effect’, i.e., they experienced cross-linguistic influence when the grammatical gender of the two languages did not overlap, leading to delayed anticipation. Both the efficiency of linguistic predictions and the likelihood of a gender congruency effect were related to children’s relative language proficiency. In Experiment 2 we tested anticipation based on grammatical gender and number in Mandarin-Italian bilingual children as compared to monolingual Italian children (aged 8 to 12), to investigate cross-linguistic influence in languages with greater typological distance. We found efficient prediction based on number in both groups, whereas processing of grammatical gender was significantly delayed for Mandarin-Italian bilinguals. One interpretation is that the discrepancy between gender and number was due to transfer, since Mandarin does not have grammatical gender while it does have a conceptual notion of number. Alternatively, the difference may have been caused by the fact that gender is an arbitrary property that requires lexical knowledge, while number is concretely linked to the referential context. Therefore, the arbitrariness of grammatical gender may be especially difficult for L2 speakers with lower proficiency levels, including bilingual children.

Altogether, our results suggest that bilingual children are able to efficiently process speech in their L2 by making use of predictive mechanisms, even when they have to rely on a feature which is expressed differently in their L1. However, depending on their language proficiency, they may experience processing delays related to cross-linguistic influence.

19.1. 21

Dr Maria Luisa Lorusso (IRCCS, Eugenio Medea): Assessment of developmental language and reading disorders in bilingual children

Distinguishing between the effects of lack of linguistic exposure and a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting language or reading acquisition in multilingual children accessing clinical services can be a challenging task. Many factors contribute to the level of mastery of the two (or more) languages, positive or negative cross-linguistic interactions may occur at several levels and many variables must be taken into account in the assessment process. One of the most effective strategies to disentangle the various factors is assessing all the languages spoken and comparing performances, but practically this may be very difficult (both because very few clinicians have a perfect knowledge of more languages, and because tests and norms developed for the monolingual population could provide misleading results). Moreover, the differences existing between language structures and between orthographic systems make a simple transposition of tasks into various languages an unsatisfactory choice, whereas specific markers may represent more sensitive and reliable targets for assessment. A fully automatized system delivering language-specific tasks and providing a quantitative and qualitative description of the levels of performance across languages is being developed within the framework of  the MultMind project. The principles on which the system is based will be described, along with the first results from groups of bilingual children with typical and atypical oral and written language acquisition. 

26.1. 21

Prof Philippe Prevost (University of Tours): Is growing up with two languages particularly challenging for autistic children?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder involving qualitative impairment in social interaction and communication, and limited, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior (DSM-V, APA 2013). Language is affected in all children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In particular, pragmatics has been shown to be impaired in all autistic children, with many also having difficulties with formal aspects of language, such as morphosyntax. The number of children growing up with more than one language being on the rise across the world, there is an increasing number of bilingual children being diagnosed with ASD. The question thus arises as to whether learning two (or more) languages in parallel is an aggravating factor for autistic children, taking into consideration the fact that to this day families of bilingual children with ASD are often advised that the child should abandon the family language. During this lecture, we will review the literature on language development in bilingual children with ASD, focusing mainly on methodological issues and on the way bilingualism factors (such as age of onset and length of exposure) have been taken into account. This review will also lead us to discuss how language may be assessed in a bilingual context.

2.2. 21

Prof Li Wei (University College London): Translanguaging: Transforming the way we think and talk about language, bilingualism and education

Translanguaging as a theoretical concept is meant to prompt us to rethink what language is in the 21st century and by implication how bilingualism and bilingual education should be conceptualised, practised, and researched. This talk reviews the origins and developments of the concept of Translanguaging and explores some of the implications by looking at language teaching and learning in diverse contexts. Methodological considerations will also be discussed.

Li Wei
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