ESR4 Project

Language processing in heritage speakers: effects of literacy, task, and modality

Lead beneficiary: University of Konstanz

Main supervisor: T. Marinis; ESR4 Committee: J. Rothman, N. Schiller, C. Eulitz


Heritage bilingual speakers almost always diverge from age-matched monolinguals of their heritage language in comprehension and production when tested in adulthood. Recent research has suggested, however, that the way heritage speakers process their L1 does not diverge as much from monolinguals as behavioral experiments show. Moreover, research has shown that heritage speakers who had literacy training in their heritage language either do not differ from monolinguals at all on behavioral experiments or much less than those who have not received literacy training.


  • Investigate how adult heritage speakers process gender and number agreement violations in their heritage language (Italian) compared to monolingual controls.

  • Use online reaction time and ERP experiments to compare language processing at the behaviour and brain level.

  • Compare online comprehension and production tasks to address whether differences between the groups relate to a specific modality (comprehension, production) or whether they hold across modalities.

  • Address the relative contribution of literacy of the heritage language on language production and comprehension.

Planned secondments:

In the 1st/2nd year 6 months in Italy to collect data from native speakers of Italian and compare them with the heritage speakers. In the 3rd year, 3 months at JB to gain experience in a non-academic environment about publishing. While at UREAD, ESR4 will receive training in dissemination and public engagement at BMR.


ESR5 Project

Processing grammatical gender across languages: effects of typological distance and cognates

Lead beneficiary: Leiden University

Main supervisor: N. Schiller; ESR5 Committee: T. Marinis, J. Rothman


Previous research on the acquisition of L2 phonology has shown that the degree of ultimate attainment relates to the distance between the L1 and the L2 (i.e. how many sound categories overlap between two languages?). This is important to the discussion around the question of “cognitive” or “language transfer”, i.e. transferring cognitive properties of one language system (L1) to another language system (L2). This project addresses effects of transfer in grammatical gender by testing whether speakers of an L1 with a gender system that is similar to the gender system of the L2 learn the L2 gender system more easily than speakers whose L1 has a different gender system.


  • Employ behavioural production and comprehension experiments to investigate the accuracy of multilingual speakers in grammatical gender assignment compared to monolingual controls.

  • Employ electrophysiological experiments to investigate how multilingual speakers process grammatical gender compared to monolingual controls.

  • Compare speakers of two Romance languages (Italian-Spanish), two Germanic languages (English-Dutch) and one Romance/one Germanic (Italian-Dutch) language to investigate the effect of typological distance.

  • Compare cognates (e.g. la lune - la luna) and non-cognates (e.g. la lune - de maan) to address how lexical factors affect the acquisition and processing of grammatical gender.

Planned secondments:

In the 1st year 2 months at UREAD to compare the design of the study with the ESR5 project and receive training in dissemination and public engagement at BMR. In the 2nd year 4 months at UPF to collect data from the Italian-Spanish bilinguals and Spanish controls. In the 3rd year 3 months at JB to gain experience in the publishing sector.

ESR6 Project

Language processing, brain structure and connectivity: effects of orthographic transparency

Lead beneficiary: University Putra Malaysia

Main supervisor: N. T. Yap; ESR6 Committee: C. Pliatsikas, D. Saddy


This project explores and builds on suggestions that using more than one language affects cognition, brain structure and connectivity. Previous research has shown that several brain regions related to language processing, along with the white matter tracts that connect them, change their structure in response to continuous handling of two languages. Testing populations in Malaysia will expand the field to the severely understudied group of multilinguals (Malay, Chinese, English), and will also explore the role of literacy and orthographic transparency on cognition, brain structure and connectivity.


  • Use online reaction time and brain imaging techniques (fMRI) to compare language processing in multilingual adults who are literate only in alphabetic languages compared to those who are literate in an alphabetic and a non-alphabetic writing system. 

  • Use brain-imaging techniques (MRI) to compare the brain structure and connectivity of bilingual adults who are literate only in alphabetic languages compared to those who are literate in an alphabetic and a non-alphabetic writing system. 

  • Address differences in the structure of brain areas related to reading as a function of the writing systems (alphabetic, non-alphabetic).

  • Validate results across different countries (Malaysia, UK).

Planned secondments:

In the 1st year 6 months at UREAD to receive training in fMRI at the CINN, to collect data from multilinguals in the UK, and to receive training in dissemination and public engagement at BMR. In the 3rd year 3 months at CNDI  to receive training in neuroimaging protocols within the field of medicine.

Photo: Luca Prestia