Multilingualism across the Lifespan: Contact, Mobility and Learning (U4)

1. History, institutional context and focus

At the Rectors' meeting in Uppsala in October 2011 the Humanities cluster proposed to develop multilingualism (hence ML) as a topical research theme. This initiative was adopted by the Rectors who encouraged the cluster to write a draft research proposal. A core group consisting of Godelieve Laureys and Mark Janse from Ghent and Gerry Wakker and Kees de Bot from Groningen wrote a first draft in 2011 to be discussed in a larger group with representatives of all U4 universities. This text defined some of the key concepts within this thematic domain. In January 2012 representatives from the 4 universities met in Groningen to discuss the possibilities of a joint research effort. In spring 2012, an inventory of on-going research related to multilingualism at the Faculties of Art of the 4 universities was made. This inventory and the subsequent conversations between the partners clearly showed that there is a basis for cooperation, but that there is also considerable paradigmatic and methodological diversity (e.g. Groningen and Göttingen share a focus on psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic aspects of language acquisition and the maintenance of linguistic skills in a multilingual setting, while Göttingen, Ghent and Uppsala conduct a lot of research on the pedagogical and educational dimensions of foreign language acquisition and learning processes in multilingual contexts; Ghent has a more explicit sociolinguistic programme concentrating on issues of linguistic diversity with research on multilingual discourse practices, individual and collective language shift and the specific linguistic challenges posed by a context of globalisation).
A programmatic text listing a range of possible topics for collaboration was drafted in the course of 2013 by the colleagues of Ghent University (Godelieve Laureys, Stef Slembrouck, Piet Van Avermaet and Mieke Van Herreweghe). It was discussed together with the initial programmatic text in a larger group with representatives of all U4 universities at a meeting held in Ghent on 4-5 June 2013. The meeting also included an overview of the U4 members research groups' expertise and projects on multilingualism. At the meeting it was decided that a second draft would be written integrating both texts. Subsequent versions of the second draft were discussed at the next two meetings, first in Ghent on 17 September 2014 with the larger group of representatives of all U4 universities, and later in Göttingen on 22 November 2014 in a 'linguistics only'-meeting with representatives from Groningen, Göttingen and Ghent.
At the Göttingen meeting, it was decided that a programmatic formulation defines a shared research space which reflects the complementary strengths and research priorities of the partners involved around key conceptual terminology of learning, contact and mobility. In this formulation, multilingualism is viewed as a key social and human-linguistic fact that manifests itself and poses specific challenges throughout the lifespan of individuals in the contemporary world. The challenges are to be situated at the levels of theory and epistemology (what is ML and how best to study it), policy and practice (how best to act upon evolving conditions of ML) and pedagogy (strategies and models of teaching and learning).
The proposed research programme will explore the dynamically-evolving processes of (urban) ML as involving contact between individuals and between groups, ML as raising issues of (mediated) participation in contexts oriented to socio-economic and transnational mobility, and ML as involving different stages and forms of formal/informal language learning in institutional and other contexts. The phenomena are studied across the lifespan of individuals. The conceptual basis for this programme is provided by the research frameworks for the study of language use and language learning that have been developed in recent decades in the 'sub-disciplines' of psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and language education research. In developing this programme, the M4U-partners undertake to actively explore the possibilities for developing specific niches of research collaboration that can be situated on the larger research 'canvas' of M4U-research. We seek to do so by drawing on complementary research strengths and allowing for specific stresses and accentuations (e.g. Groningen's current focus on individual lifespan, Ghent's focus on the societal aspects of ML and Göttingen's focus on practices of linguistic creativity).

2. Defining the study of ML in a fast-changing societal context

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We cannot ignore the fact that in the last decades there have been a number of clear societal trends and changes with respect to processes of globalization which have resulted in new and invigorated migratory flows and forms of transnational mobility. In addition, trajectories have also become more fleeting and complex, as people nowadays do not exclusively move from A to B in order to start a new life. Journeys between A and B may be multiple, they may go in more than one direction. Stays in a host country may be temporary and contact with the community left behind often continues. The landscape of transnational mobility not only includes immigrants and refugees, but also professionals, international students, tourists, etc. Thanks to recent multimedia developments like Skype, smartphones, etc. people can communicate easily with family, relatives, friends, colleagues, etc. and do so globally, wherever they are situated. Additional factors have also resulted in an acceleration. Processes of unification in Europe have caused an increase in the mobility of people, especially transnational labourers. At the same time, locality has become more important and this has coincided with growing urbanization. Today, more than half the world's population lives in urban contexts. Processes of globalization and localization (cf. de Bot's concept of 'glocalisation') lead to 'superdiverse' cities, characterised by the intensity and multiplicity of transcultural contact and multilingual encounters.
These fast-moving changes have an impact on individuals, on groups and on our society as a whole. Especially in times of economic recession, this often leads to insecurity, fear, a need for simplicity and clarity, resorting to old values and norms, in which the 'other' is seen as a problem. Hence, current discourses and policies on 'otherness' have become more polarized and ideologised, while urban contexts are also increasingly characterised by growing societal and educational inequality. An important question is how advanced industrial societies and their institutions (education, health, etc.) have responded to the changed urban environments - in public debate, in policy responses and in the ways in which institutions have adjusted their functioning. Matters of language use and multilingualism have been central both in the processes of change and in how societies have responded to them.
Today, researchers are not always able to give empirically supported solutions to policy makers. To give one example: in the past fifty years a substantial amount of research was done with respect to processes of language shift, the dynamics of language choice, processes of language loss and death. These studies have led to many very interesting insights, but the impact of the more recent developments of urban super-diversity have barely been documented. Are the 'old' assumptions still valid today? How similar are the processes in different types of superdiverse spaces? Urban neighbourhoods, schools and universities may in each in their own right be regarded as superdiverse spaces, but are the linguistic processes and challenges comparable?
ML tends to be defined as the individual or collective use and development of more than one linguistic code or repertoire. Code or linguistic repertoire then refers not only to languages, dialects, but also to different styles, registers, etc. Uses may be extensive and cover a wide range of functions. The use of one language may also be very limited. Development will include growth in the use of a code, but in some contexts its decline is what merits attention. As far as the use and mastery of linguistic varieties is concerned, there is no absolute definition of what makes a community or an individual multilingual.
A broad distinction can be made between the sociolinguistics of ML - ML as a group dynamics and collective experience, the psycholinguistics of ML - ML as an individual phenomenon and experience, and educational aspects of ML. ML as a group phenomenon has typically been studied within the field of sociolinguistics, focusing on the impact of societal factors such as national and/or ethnic group identity, geographic location, social stratification, gender and age variables, etc., mostly with specific attention to distributions of features over populations, aspects of language planning and the unfolding dynamics of ML in actual interaction. ML as an individual phenomenon, on the other hand, has been mostly the terrain of psycholinguistics and neurolinguistic enquiry, one central question being how the different languages of a multilingual user are stored, processed, how their learning and use affects one another (esp. the impact of L1 on later learned languages). More recent developments in neuro-imaging techniques have resulted in considerable methodological refinement.
Boundaries between these different perspectives cannot be drawn sharply, and increasingly in research the sociological/psychological distinction seems to disappear altogether - often by necessity. In the study of ML in education for instance many factors need to be considered simultaneously, including sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic ones. For instance, is the EU policy ideal of individual trilingualism a feasible one? From a cognitive point of view, does 'learning three' happen at the expense of 'learning two' and what are the best ages to introduce a second and a third language? And, how different does the picture look when we are talking about learners whose first language is not the school language? As a result of the superdiversity challenges which schools face today in how to deal with the multilingual realities in their classrooms, the psycholinguistic questions are being redrawn. The questions come back at the level of policy debate. For instance, although there is a lot of empirical evidence which speaks for multilingual education (e.g. positive effects on both cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes), it is politically no longer straightforward to develop an argument in favour of multilingual classroom practice. And, what if learning a second language successfully is not just a matter of efficient teaching, because it is also impacted by factors of social well-being and recognition of sociolinguistic identity? Conversely, once the choice for functional multilingual learning has been made, what are the cognitive parameters within which to optimize such a choice? The current proposal seeks to place ML in a much broader framework than has been traditionally the case. The range of factors that may have an impact on group or individual language behaviour is almost infinite. They are likely to range from the socio-economic to the individual-psychological.
Finally, in view of a growing globalization of science there is a heightened need for reflection on scientific activity and communication, starting from the assumption that the objects of research are not given but constituted through specific research questions and developed within culture specific contexts. Today, scientific knowledge is produced in international contexts of knowledge exchange. This calls for an increase in direct exchange between researchers of different national contexts and this is exactly what M4U attempts. An interesting footnote in this respect is that the potentials of multilingual and polyglot practices in scientific communication call for an investigation in their own right.

3. Research strands

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We propose four research strands. In each case, we identify a number of potential research questions. In these strands the three different foci of ML as a group phenomenon, ML as an individual phenomenon, and educational aspects of ML can be discerned:

i. Language development (shift, maintenance, revitalization, etc. in contexts of migration):

  • Do we perceive other processes of language development in the individual and in groups, compared to the dynamics observed in the past?
  • What is the influence of the new media (satellite TV, skype, etc.) on processes of language shift, language maintenance, etc.? Do they lead to the revitalization of (minority) languages?
  • What is the influence of 'translanguaging' in multilingual spaces on language shift, language maintenance, etc.?
  • What are the effects of age and ageing on multilingualism? On language shift, revitalisation, etc.?

ii. Language learning, teaching and assessment in different spaces (e.g. informal/formal learning; explicit/implicit learning), including aspects of second language acquisition (SLA):

  • What do processes of implicit and informal language acquisition in multilingual dynamic spaces look like?
  • Does the use of new devices like tablets, pc's and smartphones offer new perspectives for SLA? Do processes of SLA develop differently as a result?
  • How do implicit and explicit language learning processes relate to each other in these new contexts of use?
  • How do multilingual and multicultural academic communication competencies develop?
  • Given the fact that both schools and work floors have become more diverse, to what extent are existing monolingual tools and approaches still sufficient?
  • What are the technical and validational possibilities and limitations of multilingual assessment tools?
  • What is the impact of multilingual assessment tools on cognitive and non-cognitive academic output?
  • What is the impact of multilingual assessment tools on the perceptions of employers, educators, principals, etc.?

  • iii. The interactional dynamics of multilingual spaces, real and virtual (e.g. schools, community centres, facebook, local health centres, universities, etc.)

    • Do we observe more intensive practices of translanguaging in different spaces of social activity today, given these spaces have become more diverse and multilingual than before?
    • How are the multilingual repertoires of agents in multilingual spaces like local health centres, shops, community centres, schools, universities, etc. being used? Do they form a threshold or a scaffold for social contacts and informal learning processes?
    • What are the interactional effects of different forms of multilingual agency in different domains on social participation and language use?
    • How are the multilingual repertoires of educational agents being used? What are the actual practices? How are they perceived by different agents? Do they form a threshold or a scaffold for the cognitive and non-cognitive development of the pupils and students?
    • What do ethnographic studies of (international) academic communication reveal with respect to practices of translanguaging in academic communication, the use of multilingual repertoires of agents, etc.
    • Can translanguaging be used as a pedagogy? What is the specific contribution of multilingual practice to knowledge generation?

    iv. Policies, ideologies and practice

    • What is the impact and effectiveness of current integrational ('assimilational') and linguistic policies and strengthened monolingual ideologies on social participation and social cohesion in the multilingual spaces of today?s super-diverse contexts?
    • Do compulsory and conditional formal language programmes and language tests have a more substantial impact on language acquisition and social participation than optional and facilitating informal or non-formal language learning environments and activities?
    • How do scales of inequality emerge and interact within the school language policy and how does it contribute to creating contradictions and conflicts in educational structures (at primary, secondary and tertiary level)?
    • What is the position of multilingualism in the language-ideological anchorage of academic communication in international settings and which strategies of functional multilingualism for academic communication can be discerned?

    4. Action plan

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    Long-term goals:
    - The acquisition of funded research as a consortium.
    - The development of joint PhD's and parallel PhD-projects.
    - Doctoral training initiatives (e.g. summer/winter school).
    - Structural implementation of student exchange.
    - Opening up to collaboration with other international clusters.

    Short-term goals:
    - Participation in one another's conference and seminar initiatives.
    - One-on-one collaboration around individual PhD or postdoctoral research initiatives.