S2 E3: Linguistics and Language Learning – Prof. Ludovica Serratrice

Welcome back to another episode! Today we are joined by Professor Ludovica Serratrice.

She is a Professor of bi-multilingualism at the University of Reading and was the Director of the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism for 3 years. She is also a co-investigator on a project as part of the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) international center for language and communication development – LuCiD. Prof Serratrice did her PhD in the Linguistics department here at the University of Edinburgh, the same department in which many of our volunteers on the podcast currently study. She is also a member of the Reading Branch of Bilingualism Matters.

You can find out more about some of her current projects, and perhaps participate, below:

Listen to the episode here!

Read the transcript here!

[Brittany] Hello and welcome to another episode of Much Language Such Talk. In this episode you will be listening to me, Brittany and the wonderful Vittoria. Hello Vittoria.

[Vittoria] Hi there!

[Brittany] We are joined by Professor Ludovica Serratrice, who is a professor of Bi- and Multilingualism at the University of Reading, and was the director for the Center of literacy and multilingualism for three years. She’s also a co-investigator on a project as part of the ESRC Economic and Social Research Council, International Center for Language and Communication Development LuCiD. Ludovica Serratrice did her PhD in the linguistics department here at the University of Edinburgh, the same department in which many of our volunteers on the podcast currently study including Vittoria, she is also a member of the Reading branch of Bilingualism Matters. Welcome.

[Ludovica] Thank you very much, Brittany and Vittoria. I’m really pleased to be here to be a guest at Bilingualism Matters. Thank you for inviting me.
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[Brittany] Thank you for accepting our invitation. So our first question just quite generally, is how did you develop your interest in languages and linguistics?

[Ludovica] Actually, my interest in language, maybe not linguistics, but in languages sort of started when I was really young. I’ve got a younger sister and I remember then we were even before going to school, we were pretending to speak in other languages. And I don’t know what we’re actually saying. And gibberish, probably but we were pretending we were speaking another language. So we always had a fascination for languages. And then I guess I started I was very lucky, I had a fantastic language teachers at school. So in Italy, where I was brought up, you start at one of my time anyway, I think now children go, you know, get language lessons for a language license in primary school. But when I was young, that didn’t happen. It happened in middle school when they were about you know, 11 or 12. So and I had fantastic teachers, you know, both in in middle school in high school that really would have ignited a passion for language and, and then linguistics I probably say I spent a year in in Glasgow actually in Scotland, okay, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and I was a language assistant in three secondary schools. And what I spent a year in Glasgow at the time, it was 1992. I got to know a lot of people that were doing Masters and PhD. So I looked into the possibility of doing something with languages because at the time was I was a university, but I was already working as a simultaneous interpreter. So I trained as an intern, sending I did a degree in English and French Language and Literature. But that really sort of got me thinking maybe I can do a Master’s, maybe I can do something a bit more academic rather than vocational. So so that’s how it all went down. I went to the University of Essex for a master’s and then I ended up in Edinburgh for a PhD, and I haven’t looked back since really.

[Brittany] Wow. So always sort of the language context. If you said you were doing interpretation, yes. Before linguistics.

[Ludovica] Yeah

[Brittany] Really interesting. Yeah.

[Ludovica] Yeah. So I wanted to, like I said, you know, I was always I started coming, I should say, England, not Scotland. But when I was like 12, or 13, you know, during the summer, so I really developed an interest for that. And then I started doing French and German when I was in, in secondary school, because in my secondary school, I could only do one foreign language, and that was English. Then I started doing French and German, and then I, yeah, after school, I trained as an interpreter for three years. And then I went to university to do a degree. But I think it was really that year out in Glasgow that sparked my interest in more the linguistic side of things, because obviously, I had always been involved in the language side of things, but the linguistic side of things, and particularly language acquisition and language development, because that’s, that’s what I did at Essex, and of course, then at Edinburgh.

[Brittany] So that actually very nicely transitions into my next question about this being something that you’ve done quite a lot of research on, the language development in children and adults and how they might acquire languages. So what would you say is the biggest difference between a child and an adult trying to learn an additional language?

[Brittany] Oh, interesting juxtaposition.

[Ludovica] Okay, so the way you pose the question makes me think that you’re talking more about sort of language learning as in a potentially a second language learning environment as opposed to a child growing up with two languages, am I correct?

[Ludovica] Yes.

[Brittany] If you’d like to answer both that would be very cool. So the original question is indeed the ladder so the first instance of trying to learn an additional language rather than learning two languages when you’re younger.

[Ludovica] Yeah. Well, I mean, the obvious sort of difference is that as an adult coming to the second language, you already have a well established first language. And clearly in addition to that, you know about the world and you know a lot of stuff that you don’t have to learn as a child so I tried learning a second language is not only learning another language when the first time which may or may not be well established yet, and they may also have less awareness of about language or we call metalinguistic awareness, which is something that also helps you out as a second language learner. With a very explicit strategy so for example, as a Second Language Learner say if you’re a speaker or I don’t know Italian for example, you know that name nouns can have a feminine and a masculine gender, if you’re learning a language like Spanish or French that also have feminine and masculine gender, you acute to that you will you be thinking about when you’re learning, you know, in an explicit way. So children clearly may have less of these strategies available to them. They know less about the first language potentially, and be because they may have less of this explicit knowledge. At the same time there is a little bit this idea that young children learn languages like sponges, would you believe little bit of a mess in some respect, because actually, starting younger… so there’s been studies that have looked again at the age effect and learning a second language. So clearly, when you come to it as an adult, there are many things that are harder. And you know, there are people talk about they used of talk about a critical period now they talk more about a sensitive period, like a window of opportunity when learning a language may be more or less easy. And one of the things, you will probably listen to me and you will immediately know that I’m not, you know, the English is not my first language so to speak, right? And you can detect an accent if you like, maybe you can’t immediately say that it’s an Italian accent, but certainly you can say you can hear that English is not my first language. So clearly, sort of there are windows of opportunity, whereby sort of learning certain aspects of language as a child is easier. For example, phonology, you know, you can tell immediately, although my syntax, my morphology, my pragmatics, I hope are pretty okay. My phonology is not that of a person who only speaks English, okay, it’s good enough that you can understand what I’m saying. And I you know, I’m not making a fool of myself, but you can immediately tell that English is not my first language. So clearly sort of, for that aspect of language learning, you know, starting younger is better. But there are other aspects. Like for example, you know, syntax and morphology, or aspects when you’re learning a language in explicit ways where you can learn a lot more knowledge faster when you’re a little bit older. Okay? When this kind of meta linguistic awareness kicks in, when this explicit teaching kicks in, actually, in classroom instructor situation, it’s better to be a little bit older than they’ve been younger. If you say, you know, it’s easier if you start you know, maybe when you’re in your teens, that when you’re six, and

[Brittany] so when you say, explicit instruction, are you meaning like classroom setting where you’ve got, you’re fitting a teacher, and they’re saying, here’s how this language works, here’s some vocabulary yeah

[Ludovica] You’re told pretty, you know, explicitly, you know, for example, that you know, you need a verb after a noun, that you need, you know, the adjective in English goes before a noun. And in Italian, it goes after a noun most of the time. So things like that they’re kind of very explicit, very strategic, and very aware kind of instruction, it is easier for an adult or some, you know, an older child to take this than for younger children.

[Brittany] That makes sense. Yeah.

[Ludovica] And yeah, so this is, is quite different. If you’re talking about, say, for example, growing up with two languages, is a simultaneous bilingual, or was an early bilingual where you’re exposed to two languages in a naturalistic environment, right? Because one of your parents speaks a language that is not the language of the community, or a different language from your other parent. So in that case, it’s in this situation is quite different, because you don’t have this kind of, you know, parents don’t teach language to their children in the same way than teachers teach these languages to their pupils in the classroom if you know what I mean.

[Brittany] Yes, yes. And has there been any research? Or do you know of any research around trying to teach adults in the way that children learn like you’ve just described where you have, you’re just sort of surrounded or immersed in this the language? Does that work?

[Ludovica] Well, more than than experiments, you know, there are people that do learn language like that, oh, true. You know, refugees or immigrants. There is a lot of work that was done, I probably like in the late 80s, about what was called the learner variety of people that would come to a country specifically this was done in Germany, where they just learned naturalistically, okay? So clearly sort of your learning and depending on the context in which you’re in, your learning is functional to what you need. A lot of these, you know, adult learning fossilize very early, because maybe they were not literate in the language. So they had basic communication skills. And then of course, especially in the case of adult learners, literacy is a big gateway to language development, because the minute you can learn, not only can you learn to read the language, but you can learn about the language. So there is also again, like a metalinguistic function of literacy in language development in language learning for adults, that it’s not accessible to people that may be just purely immersed in a naturalistic environment with much help in a more explicit strategic way.

[Brittany] Yeah. Oh, that’s what I mean. Very good point. Very interesting I hadn’t I don’t think I had thought about it in that way like that reading, you can then go to say the library and pick up a book or look online and there’s all these other resources that might be available. Whereas a child can’t read yet most likely in their first language, much less any additional sort of language. Right. Okay, very interesting. So our next question, you have a recent paper that was published called “A cross cultural analysis of early pre linguistic gesture development and its relationship to language development.” Can you tell us a bit more about gestures in early childhood?

[Ludovica] Okay, so this is was a study in collaboration with colleagues at the LuCiD research center so Thea Cameron Hawk (?) is the lead author on this paper and what we did was looking at the relationship between early gestures and I’m talking about direct gesture so gesture that are used to identify a reference and specifically pointing is one of those and then we also had hold out and give and receive gesture. Okay, I’m gonna maybe say a little bit more about those in a minute. But the what we looked at in three different communities, all Manchester based communities Bengali speaking community Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese speaking community and English speaking community because we wanted to see there is a little bit of I wouldn’t say controversy but that I some mixed findings in the literature and the extent to which there may be cross cultural differences in the use of gestures. Okay, so and pointing gesture like I said, they’re like a really big milestone, right? I don’t know if parents pay as much attention to the emergence of pointing gesture as they do to the emergence of early words or the first word that the child says, but pointing is a really really important milestone in communicative development because essentially, what pointing does is really joint attention okay. To try to draw attention of the person that you’re appointing for to something that you want to talk about and you want them to talk to you about Okay, so it typically children point and then very likely, especially in the case of a prelinguistic infant, a child they can’t speak here they point they might vocalize the parent or the adult might say something like ‘Oh yeah, what’s that all Yeah, that’s a nice bunny’. So clearly sort of, it’s a prompt to share attention and an opportunity for the adult to elaborating to provide language context. So there is now a very well established link between the emergence of gestures and you know, things like reaches and gives and hold out gesture where children are not using the extended index finger but they’re just using the hand and maybe they’re offering an object or it’s reaching out but without the pointing these kind of gestures tend to emerge around 10 months while pointing again emerges between 10 and 12 months and this seems to be fairly universal okay. So cross cultural kind of schedule and like I said, there is a positive predictive relationship between how much children point and gesture you know, these kinds of directed gestures like a give out and hold out and that early vocabulary development. So for example, this is one of the things that we found in our own study. So we measured children gestures are 10 and 12 months and then we looked at the vocabulary development at 18 months and we did find a positive predictive relationship between children that gesture more when they were turning 12 months until they’ve had a larger vocabulary when they were 18 months because you know, like I said, you know, gesture is it sharing attention is creating joint attention which is really what you need for word learning and piggybacking on word learning of course, you know, learning of bigger chunks learning of syntax and morphology and in time pragmatics and all the fancy things that come with that.

[Brittany] Right oh that’s so interesting I had really no idea about child development at all. So this is super interesting like I’m most of my research is in aging so when you said 10 months for example, this was exactly my question was like I don’t even know when that should start happening. Um so with with one thing I did think of like with the pointing is it universal that it would be like the index finger or yeah…

[Ludovica] So very much so. So, so what what changes like you know, the differences that have been observed cross culturally may be is the amount so the frequency of pointing and potentially in again in some studies have observed cross cultural and cross linguistic differences in the amount of contingent talk that the parents provide.

[Brittany] Oh okay.

[Ludovica] But not in the you know, if you like shedule of pointing coming online that seems to be pretty well established that it it’s part and parcel of the kind of, you know, developmental schedule that the children are on aside for Um, like I said, you know, there may be cultural components that might dictate, you know, frequency and extent, but not so much the emergence of pointing gestures.

[Brittany] Oh, that’s so interesting. Oh, cool. So then how, say, and maybe you haven’t done studies on this, but I’m sure you would know if it does exist. But then how say our gestures, like the pointing or the reaching different for a child, maybe who’s learning a signed language? Like, how are those differentiated?

[Ludovica] Yeah, it depends. I mean, I suppose I, personally, I haven’t done any research on that. And I can’t off the top of my head think of anything, but what I can tell you is that clearly a child is exposed to a signed language, you know, the modality is different. And we will already see things like, you know, diet phase in sign language, but aside from learning this specific sign, okay? For in English, so the pointing is the equivalent of like, if you like a demonstrative saying ‘that’ ‘this’, okay, in a way. And so don’t ask me what the equivalent is in BSL or you know La Lingua Italiana dei Sordi. I don’t know. So so that’s one thing, because that’s language, but gesture is a different thing. Okay. One thing is sort of sign language, which is, you know, a grammaticalized way of encoding meaning in a different modality, which is not the oral modality. And one thing is gestures. So again, I haven’t sort of say, you know, read anything specific. My my prediction would be that regardless of whether a child is exposed to the oral spoken language, or sign language, the gesture should come online, regardless of that.

[Brittany] Super interesting! Cool.

[Vittoria] Yeah, so we touched briefly on children, learning a second language, which kind of leads us to thinking about multilingual children and multilingual families. In April 2020, during lockdown, you and some of your colleagues launched a survey for multilingual families in the UK and Ireland. Can you tell us a bit more about what inspired this project and what you found so far?

[Ludovica] Yeah, so it was very much of a spur of the moment, you know, enterprise, because we’re all plunged into these strange social experiment without really wanting to be there. And it just occurred to me that it would have been, you know, an interesting thing to look at how the language using these multilingual families now that they were locked up together, may or may not change over time, of course, in the time, we didn’t know whether it was going to be a matter of weeks or months. In the end, it turned out to be months. And of course, we now know, you know, further lockdown, school interruptions, homeschooling, and all that. So for some families, it was a fairly, sort of extended period of time. And so this is how it all came about, really. And so we set out to, to create a survey, and we put it out there and it was really successful, surprisingly, maybe people were at home, they didn’t know what to do, and they decided to do a survey. So we had more than 1000 people in the UK and Ireland filling in our survey. It’s been inevitable, when you actually look at the usable data, there is always a little bit less than you hope because people around the survey or maybe they’re not, you know, they have to be at the time living in the UK and Ireland, and some of them very enthusiastically did the survey but actually lived in the Philippines. So that really didn’t, what we you know, we couldn’t use that kind of data. But anyway, we had more than 700 responses. And one of the things, so my hunch, they say like my scientific prediction was that if anything was going to change, and really we’re interested mostly in the, what might happen to languages other than English, what I’m going to call very broadly the other languages, and in my expectation, my prediction was that, it was going to be a few weeks, maybe a few months, so probably likely to be perhaps more of a catalyst for change for younger than for all the children because say, if you’re an 18 year old, and your parents speak to you in Chinese, and you always answer back in English, I say, it’s probably unlikely that you start speaking Chinese to them after a couple of months, right? But if you’re a two year old, and you’re in the cusp of, you know, putting sentences putting words together coming in with multi word sentences, and maybe you’ve only just started nursery and then you’re at home with your mom and dad and maybe I don’t know, grandparents or older siblings, and they all speak Chinese to you and you have very little contact with English then maybe something might change. And this is actually again, what we found. So we did find that age was a significant predictor of how much whether you know whether there was more language, more of the other languages spoken in the home and by the parents, but also by the children. Okay, so we divided our children in families that had preschoolers, primary school aged children in secondary school aged children. And we really saw this effect, you know, insignificant terms, statistically only in the preschoolers. Okay. The other thing that we found was also that this effect, you know, another predictor was whether the children were already using that language, it didn’t matter how much were whether they were already using that language when speaking with the parents. So for example, if you know you go, I don’t know an Italian speaking parent, and you normally answer your parent back, I don’t know in Italian, let’s say 60% of the time, so not all the time. But you know, some of the time you do, then during lockdown, probably that 60% went up by 20%. You know, we haven’t actually looked at the magnitude but let’s say, maybe, rather than doing six times out of 10, maybe you were doing it eight times out of 10. Or maybe for some of the children, we actually saw that the lockdown was really a catalyst. And they actually started speaking, using the language of the, you know, the parent, that was not the societal language, ie English pretty much all the time. And so we supplemented the the survey with interviews with 18 families, again, you know, just because I’ve really interviewed them now a year later, also to see whether any changes were maintained over time. And that seemed to be the case with some of the younger children. So for those children for whom lockdown was a catalyst, something there was a qualitative change, if you like, you know, a shift, that the change the way they interacted with the parents, and for some of these children, it has remained the same, but really only for the younger children, which again, you know, it’s not that surprising, is it?

[Vittoria] No, it’s so interesting, and I was having related conversation with some of my multilingual friends who were saying, as well that once you establish a conversation with the person speaking in a specific language, it’s very hard to speak a different language with them, even if you both share the same set of languages. If you start a relationship with someone speaking English, for example, some of the Italian people that I might meet in the UK, if we just meet and we start speaking English, and we keep speaking English, it’s very hard that we will ever go back to speaking Italian to each other.

[Ludovica] Yeah, yeah. So, again, sort of you’re doing that as an adult, but imagine in a child, so it’s even harder, but…

[Vittoria] Absolutely, yeah.

[Ludovica] Yeah. So it was really interesting to see that for some of these children and again, you know, this is anecdotal is from one of the interviews, but for one of these children is actually an Italian child. And in her case, the catalyst was starting pretend play about four so you know, that kind of pretend play really kicks in. And pretend play was the key because she started doing pretend play with her mom, who was the Italian speaker in the family. And because she was so into pretend play, there was a lot more use of Italian and only mommy could do pretend play daddy couldn’t. So that really leverage combining the Italian with pretend play, and that really… And then for some children, another big catalyst, and we were talking about literacy earlier, was learning to read children again, preschoolers, sort of, you know, around the age of four, or just children that had maybe done the reception year, which is between four and five in England, then, you know, they had done a little bit of phonics I guess it’s, you know, a school before a lockdown, and then learning to read in another language, which may have an easier, more transparent system than English because English is a bit of a nightmare, as we all know, learning to read in English. And so some parents leverage that time that they had to also teach their children to read, which again, you know, for some children, you really opened up, you know, a whole new world.

[Vittoria] Yeah, absolutely. So that experience of homeschooling kind of leads me to my next question, which is what were some, some of the biggest struggles faced by multilingual families during Covid?

[Ludovica] Yeah, I mean, aside from the struggles that all families face, I mean, you mentioned homeschooling, and I guess homeschooling could have gone either ways, okay, because I mean, a lot of the parents that we surveyed also, again, the ones that were interviewed, they said that they were still doing homeschooling in English. And just purely because and we all know you know, you’ll probably do that yourselves. When you’re a code switching. A lot of code switching is topic based. So of course, you know, these children come home from home from school with, I don’t know, maths homework, you know, and the parents just don’t have the equivalent in their own language, okay, or they think it might be confusing the child too much if they start talking about phonics in Chinese, right? And so homeschooling was done in English. For some, I mean, homeschooling I think was a bit of a nightmare for all parents. But for multilingual families where there was you know, they were maybe sort of leveraging this time to have more of the home language, then the homeschooling was pulling them in another direction so to speak, because there is still in English which they have to do obviously for children that were going to school. Another thing was I would say for a lot of families obviously because nobody could go anywhere, was they really missed the, you know, going to see family in the country of origin or having, you know, grandparents or other family members come over to, to the UK or Ireland, so those in person visit, and that in some cases were fairly extended, you know, maybe a few weeks in the summer, or during the Christmas holidays, those were were really big losses. And I think they all are not acknowledge them. I mean, they were quite creative these families. So they did, especially with children, they could cope with, you know, online. And some of them, you know, have parents and grandparents, you know, uncles and aunts that were doing, I don’t know, hide and seek over FaceTime or WhatsApp or Zoom or playing Scrabble or you know, doing those kinds of things that maybe before they weren’t doing because it was more like of a fleeting video call and son on. They were trying to get that time back by doing this online. Again, the parents were saying that while at the beginning, it was all new and exciting, inevitably after a while, and I’m real tired of you know, being online 24/7, so and that, you know, some children lost interest in that. And of course, with the younger children, it was more difficult, you know, to engage them for any length of time. But yeah, so I would say the two… Yeah, not seeing family was, yeah, was, you know, not having that kind of support for those who had the opportunity to travel or have families travel back was, yeah, it was a big issue. I would have thought.

[Vittoria] Absolutely. And which role does socioeconomic status of the family play? or what role did it play during the Covid lockdown?

[Ludovica] Yeah, so we asked one of the questions. So we, I guess, you know, our proxy for SES was that we asked about parental education. And so we were kind of trying to be a bit agnostic about the role of, you know, whether parents weren’t like the mother or the father. In hindsight, I, so we said parent one parent two. My hunch, and that of my colleagues is that parent one was mom, parent two was dad, and that, like, 95% of the people that filled out the questionnaire, were moms. I am also saying that because I know from the emails that I was getting, so you know, to get people, you know, they I asked them to leave their email, if they want to take part in a follow up survey. And so I’d say, yeah, 95% of the people whose name I found out were women, so again, I can’t say these 100%, but I would say the parent one was mom. So we asked, like I said, you know about education of parent one and parent two, and what I can tell you so we used that, you know, a parental education as one of the factors in our analysis to see what it would predict anything. Most of the time, we didn’t find that parental education was a significant predictor. So for example, you know, the amount of speech or, or literacy activity is in such like, what we did ask, and this is where we found that parents of younger children, so parent one of younger children, so preschoolers that had a higher level of education. So let’s say more educated moms, let’s say, with younger children, were more worried about their children’s English. Okay, so this group of parents and like I said, probably mothers that were more educated, were literate, because we asked them ‘Are you worried about your you know, now that your child is not in nursery, are you worried about their level of English?’ and you know, more educated mothers seem to be more worried about this. Another… And then we also looked at, you know, the, the use of English and the other language. The other thing that we found is that families in which parent two, probably dad, was more educated, they had more English in the home. So families with fathers who are more educated, brought in more English, but the families in which there was more of the other language. So more Chinese, French, you know, what will you name it. And where the parent one, the mother was more educated. So it seemed that a more educated mothers perhaps were more inclined to transmit to speak their own language, perhaps, you know, they suffered less from the angst that they should speak English to their child to make sure that they fit in that they, you know, that they do what is school, so they seem to be more relaxed about speaking their own language. The other question that we had at the end was about well being and tension, whether you know, use of the other languages was a source of well being or a source of tension in the family and levels of well being they’re generally very high. So we’re talking to you on a scale from zero to 100, though there were around, you know, the 75-80% mark. So overall, people attributed, you know, higher well being to speaking more of the other language during lockdown. But this effect was more pronounced in families with lower parental education somehow. So they seem to have been, you know, finding that more, even more positive, like I said, you know, the level was were really high overall. But there seem to be a little bit of added value in these families, maybe like rediscovering something that perhaps they you know, maybe in normal times, they felt they had to maybe push their English, you know, the children’s English more than maybe when everybody was at home, and there were just, you know, more of the other language spoken around, they seem to be, you know, benefiting more from that and appreciating that.

[Vittoria] So we touched on kind of like exchange with a family members who maybe were abroad through Zoom. And I was wondering, how do you think that social isolation and social distancing and the absence of freedom of movement during Covid, has affected linguistic exchange? And maybe do you think that the fact that it’s now so normalized to connect through Zoom to completely other parts of the world would have been able to fill that gap in experience that we’ve seen for the past year or so?

[Ludovica] Yeah, that’s an interesting question. So like I said, we had this big cohort of people, and we’re hoping to follow them up over the course of a year, inevitably, you know, there is like questionnaire fatigue, because also, you know, with people moving online, everything became a questionnaire. So that following people a year after the pandemic wasn’t very successful. So because our numbers were much smaller, it really didn’t make much sense, you know, when you’ve got such a small sample, at the end to say anything very meaningful. So we’ve decided, but we didn’t know what was going to happen. Like I said, you know, we also had like a qualitative arm of the research, we just thought, again, just to make a little bit more work for ourselves with no funding, I said, okay, let’s do some interviews. That worked out really well, because like I said, we’ve only got 18 families, but then they you know, they all agreed to be interviewed, a year later. So like I said, I think I’ve only got a couple of families that have not interviewed yet. But so I know from, you know, qualitatively and these are families interestingly, you know, we also have some with preschool there, some with primary school children, some with secondary school children, like I said, where we saw the biggest change was with the primary school children. And I have to say, you know, the pandemic affected change at the time. So we saw people, like I said, you know, moving online, trying to do even complimentary school moving online. So there were a lot of families that normally would send their children to a Saturday, you know, Greek school or Russian school, and then they were doing some of these things online. So they tried to fill the gap in that way. And I think it was, especially because it was, you know, it was insane. But it was also, in a strange way exciting. I don’t know, I don’t want to say in a positive way, but you know, new and, yes, something was happening, we were all very much aware that we were in the middle of something momentous, right. So and then you fell perhaps even more than needed to connect with people that were elsewhere, family that was displaced, and disconnected, and so on. So that I think worked really well. What we’ve seen a year on, is that I’m afraid to say, and I think this is probably true of many other different areas, including, I don’t know, sustainability, environmental change, travel, and all that we have reverted to pre pandemic levels, right. So, you know, inevitably going back to school again, school, clearly, sort of the minute you know, children start going to school, peers become a lot more important. Children, they don’t have families that don’t have like a big support network of other children that also speak the other language. But inevitably, a lot of the time these children speak English to each other anyway. So that in a lot of these families haven’t had the opportunity, because even this summer, when people could travel a little bit more, a lot of the families that I spoke to didn’t go anywhere, and their relatives didn’t come. So they still got that, you know, the opportunity to go to I don’t know, Greece or Pakistan or wherever it hasn’t really materialized for some of them. So I have to say, for some children, I have to, again, qualitative interview. So I don’t want to generalize, but one of the patterns that we’ve seen is for those children that had that, you know, momentous qualitative switch of starting to use the language that they didn’t before, that seems to have remained. And then again, for children that started reading, this is something that perhaps not as maybe as much reading as they were the way the beginning, but it’s a tool in their arsenal now so they can use it and they do use it. Again, you kind of never know would that have happened if we hadn’t had the pandemic? So in a way you kind of never know, but certainly it wasn’t happening before and then it happened during lockdown. Any remain a little bit. So you know, this is clearly not an intervention study, you know, it’s not a random, you know, an RCT. But yeah, so what we can you know, we can see at least from a qualitative point of view the kinds of patterns that emerge that you know, some things have changed and have remained but most things are reverted to pre pandemic level. So, yeah.

[Brittany] Oh, and just to say, for our listeners who might not know RCT is randomized control trial, which is a study design that’s thought to be sort of the gold standard when you’re looking at intervention studies and things but yes, yeah, which of course, this isn’t because we would need a world where there wasn’t a pandemic that you could then have as your control group. And that’s not possible.

[Ludovica] It’s not possible.

[Brittany] No.

[Ludovica] It’s not possible, but we wish we had a world without the pandemic.

[Brittany] I know, right? We could all just go there then. So a question that I have. Similar to that where sort of was just defining RCT for some of our listeners, who maybe aren’t too familiar with linguistics, but are quite interested in languages and things. How would you describe or define, you’ve mentioned some words like syntax, and phonology and pragmatics. Could you give us a quick sort of overview of what those things are and what they mean?

[Ludovica] Uhm yes, certainly. So clearly, sort of language is multifaceted in many aspects. And as is the case for say, for example, I don’t know if you’re doing chemistry, you can do organic chemistry or inorganic chemistry. And linguist is not just a linguist, I can be you know, often phonetician, a phonologist, a syntactician, a psycholinguist. So depending in the kind of branch of linguistics that you decide to specialize in, so for example, if you’re a syntactician, you’re interested in the study of syntax. And syntax is really about structure of language. Okay? So the most obvious thing is like word order, okay? So we were maybe mentioning earlier a little bit that language is different in the way in which they order words and this is one of the many ways in which they do for example, in Italian, you normally use an adjective, like a color name, for example, after a noun so you say something like ‘cane nero’ in English you have to flip it around. So the adjective black must precede the noun dog, so it’s black dog, and not dog black. Okay, so syntax is very broadly speaking, the study of sentence structure, okay, how words are put together in a way that makes sense. I mentioned phonology. So clearly sort of looking at sound systems, the way in which the sounds of the languages are systematically arranged. And then again, you know, clearly sort of there are lots of cross linguistic differences for syntax. But of course, for phonology, this is perhaps one of the most obvious thing that strikes everybody, even if you understand nothing about the language, you understand nothing about word order, you can tell whether somebody’s speaking your language or not, right, obviously, so even just by hearing, what they’re saying. Pragmatics, which is an area that I’m very interested in, is really the study of language use. So language in context, okay? So the kinds of things that you do with language, so studying, for example, turn taking, and that’s meaningful, right? Sort of ways that you would, how do you know when it’s your turn to speak? So for example, if I’ve asked you a question, and I’ve got this kind of rising intonation, and then you know, that you’re expected to say something after that, so it’s odd if you don’t write or you’ve worked a lot on reference so we’ve got linguistic expressions in languages that help you to identify you know, entities in the real world. And by entities, I mean, people, objects, okay? So we’ve got things like names, so we’ve got Brittany and Vittoria and they identify you in the world. But we’ve also got common nouns you can see the student, the broadcaster, the interviewer, okay. So these are all potentially nominal expressions that could that I could use, you know, to identify you. And then you’ve got what this is what I’ve worked on a lot and the things like strange maybe to devote a lot of one’s career to very small but pronouns okay? So things like he and she, you know, by themselves, they don’t mean anything, right? If I say Brittany, it means something right? I can immediately identify you. But if I say she, you know, I said, like, you know, I was speaking earlier to Brittany and Vittoria, and she said, she doesn’t mean anything in its own. So you have to try and find an antecedent IE something that comes before in discourse, that you must connect this little pronoun sheet to understand whether I’m speaking about Brittany or Vittoria, for example, right? So and there may be some previous other previous cues that might disambiguate. So pronouns are a sort of way in which you, you know, that you use to make to your languaging use, okay? So things like that. What else you know, psycholinguistics, so, this is also something that I’ve been doing so is this study, as you you know, as it says in the name of linguistics behavior, but also the psychological variables that are associated with linguistic behavior. So for example, you know, to speak, to understand language to produce language, you need things like memory, right? You need attention. So clearly sort of I need, you know, you, you listen into a sentence, and you have to get to the sentence to try and understand what I’ve meant. But you can’t understand what I’ve meant, if you don’t remember what I said, maybe two sentences ago, or three sentences ago, or even at the beginning of the sentence, okay, you also have to pay attention. Because if you don’t, clearly again, you know, you may be hearing something, but you’re not really processing at a deeper level. So these are all aspects of a language development. So it’s also a branch, if you like, of psycholinguistics, the studies how children and adults when in the case of their second, third or fourth language, come to learn a new form-meaning mapping, because in the end of the day, that’s what you’re doing when you’re learning a new language. You got a meaning you need to express that meaning using a different language format, different linguistic form. So so these are some of the times that I have, you know, perhaps sort of puzzled some of your listeners or maybe not maybe they’re like a faithful followers on your podcast and know everything already about linguistics.

[Brittany] Thank you so much for the overview that was entirely expert that was incredible. Like I have an undergraduate degree in linguistics, and that quick, sort of three or four minute overview was probably cleaner that have been some of the things I’ve learned in classes. So thank you. So I have a quick question from something that you just mentioned. So your interest in pronouns, that’s really, really interesting, but something I was thinking of. So I come from a more cognitive perspective, how do you conduct research into that? Like, what sort of experiments or how do you actually measure how that works looking at the sort of pronoun reference situation?

[Ludovica] Well, you can do it in many different ways. So there are some techniques. So normally you would very broadly distinguish between what we call offline techniques, and online techniques. So offline techniques are tasks where you are, for example, sentence comprehension, you know, you listen to a sentence, and then you’re asked a question, and you have you know, if you have not understood the sentence, you could not answer the question correctly. For example, I can say something ‘Brittany saw Vittoria, at uni, and she asked her…’ whatever. Okay, so, again, this is quite an ambiguous use of the pronoun but I say who asked the question because like you can make hypotheses or whether it was Brittany or whether it was Vittoria so normally not I would give you a sentence and then I can ask you basically ‘Who does she identify? Who does it refer to?’ Very simple. In the case of younger children, you know, they can point to a picture okay, so they listen to a sentence and they say ‘Oh, can you point who did whatever?’ and they can point to one or the other picture and you normal give them two choices, okay, to make things easier. And now that you know, if you’ve got somebody who is who can read, so either you know, a child who’s learned to read or a second language learner, you can ask them you can use for example, self paced reading experiment. So when normally people see chunks of text appear on a computer screen and they press the space-bar to go to the next bit of the sentence. And what you do you measure how long it takes them to read a chunk and normally the longer it takes them to read, you know, a critical region a critical chunk, it means that they’ve got processing difficulties. It means that I’ve encountered something that they find hard to process maybe because it’s unexpected, maybe because it’s ambiguous, okay? So you can measure that kind of time. In reading you can do aisle tracking while reading again similar things if you’re interested in pronouns, you know, you’ve got two sentences, you’re tracking eye movements while people read and when people read you know, of course, you go from one word to the next, but you also regress you also go back, okay to previously read words. So again, there are various measures that you can take in reading, like you know how long you’re fixating a certain word. How many times you’re going back to previous words that also give you a sense of whether that pronoun that you know I’m interested in was difficult for you whether you found it surprising or whether you find it okay, you know, so whether we fit it in with your understanding of the sentence. Another thing you can do and then probably stop because this is more than you wanted to hear is again, we children who cannot read, you can still do online measures for example, rather than doing aisle tracking while reading, you can do you can use what we call the visual world paradigm. So they see a picture and they hear a sentence, okay, so you can mind, the idea is that what you look, you know, you hear a sound sentence and you try to map what you hear on what you can see. Okay? So for example, if I’ve got a picture of Brittany and a picture of Vittoria, when I hear you know, I say Brittany when you know saying hello to Vittoria, so when they hear Brittany, they will look at you, when they hear Vittoria, they will look at you. And then she and then this is the critical we know who will they look at when they hear she? Will they look at the probably the first mention reference at you Brittany, the one that is more salient. You know, there are obviously lots of hypotheses you can formulate, even when the pronoun is ambiguous, there are hunches that people have of what the identity of the referent is, but that’s what you could do. So even children who cannot read, you can still take these online measures. And again, you’re measuring how long they fixate, how quickly they fixate on the, you know, the reference of interest, for example, in the case of a pronoun.

[Vittoria] Fantastic. Thank you so much for clarifying that. I think neither of us works in this area. So it’s a fascinating for us to hear as well. Well, our last question today, what projects do you have lined up for the future? And what are some areas that you think you’d be interested in pursuing for future research?

[Ludovica] Okay, so I can do some of the things that I’m doing at the moment that will go on for a few years?

[Vittoria] Yeah.

[Ludovica] At the moment, I’m doing various different things. One is again, as you will know, work on with bilingual, multilingual children. And one of the big issues is also is the, you know, who is bilingual, right? How bilingual are you? What does being bilingual even mean? And we could have a whole different podcast just in this.

[Brittany] That’s true.

[Ludovica] But one of the ways in which people have tried out, you know, tried to figure out how bilingual someone is, is through questionnaires through asking people. So in the case of young children, obviously, you don’t ask a three year old but you ask their parents, okay, so you’re asking about their language history. And there are lots of questionnaires around that ask a lot of different questions. So by now, there’s been this proliferation of questionnaires. And it seems like pretty much everybody who does a study on bilinguals creates their own questionnaire. And we don’t know which kind of questions are going to be really predictive, whether the way in which we ask these questions makes a difference. So to cut a long story short, we’ve come together with some colleagues at the University of Leeds, in the Netherlands and in France, to do a large consensus study. So we brought together lots of researchers, but also lots of teachers, lots of speech and language therapists to see if we could reach a consensus on what questions we really need to ask about the bilingual language experience and how and now so we’ve now got this questionnaire that we are now piloting to see how predictive it is. Another thing that I’m doing is looking at cross linguistic influence. And we haven’t talked much about today but basically, if you’re a bilingual speaker, I know Vittoria is a bilingual speaker I’m not sure about Brittany.

[Brittany] Um, when you said the, how do you quantify a bilingual, I know some languages, I wouldn’t say that I’m proficient enough to like for example, have a podcast conversation in either of the other ones that I have knowledge of so I will quantify myself on the lower end of that.

[Ludovica] On the lower end of the spectrum. Maybe I’m thinking though somebody like Victoria, who I’m guessing is probably using you know, English and Italian pretty much say in her in her life. So inevitably, you know, the way clearly sort of if you’re a first, Italian was your first language probably affected your English but now you’ve probably come to the state of English is affecting your first language.

[Vittoria] Absolutely, massively. Yes. (laughs)

[Ludovica] And one of the podcasts on crosslinguistic infants. Anyway, so this is something that we’re doing with Polish English bilingual children in the UK, because Polish is a really big language, you know, other language in schools, in England, at least. And we’re looking at this technique called syntactic priming, where you’re basically modeling a sentence structure to see whether you can prime whether you can bias the use of that structure, when the participant has to it’s a picture description game when they have to describe their impeachment. And the interesting thing is that we’re doing this across languages so in one part of you know, in the neurology experience are bidirectional, so sometimes they hear the prime sentence in Polish and they have to answer in English and sometimes it’s the other way around. So we want to see how English affects Ptrolish and how Polish affects English and I’m not going to go into the details of the kinds of structures that we’re looking at but basically that’s what we’re doing. Another thing again with the my colleague Thea Cameron for Canada, and we worked on you know, the gesture so we’re now about to start a project that is looking at the language and literacy environment of Chinese families based in Manchester so we’re looking at, you know, the kind of emergent literacy activities they may be doing also clearly in languages like Mandarin and Cantonese that are very different writing system and then with some colleagues at the University of Tromsø in Norway, we’re looking again at this issue of cross linguistic influence. And we’re comparing a lot of bilinguals. Okay, in the field again, there is, thank God a move away from comparing bilinguals to monolinguals. But more like comparing different groups of bilinguals, where maybe you keeping one language contact constant, and you change the other language to see really what the, you know what might be happening, because of course, bilinguals are always going to be different for monolingual. So they’ve kind of almost an interesting, but it’s, you know, but it may be more interesting to compare different bilinguals with different types of language combinations. And we’re looking at, you know, this at this point in time, at possessive constructions, which are fascinating, because, you know, the way in which languages work, when it comes to a possessor, or the things possessed, the kind of patterns really change a lot, and for example, in Italian are very different. And, and we’ve got lots of different language combinations. In the future, I think I would like to go back to doing more so and then been doing things on inferencing. So what is it that allows you to understand the text, right? So how can you make a lot of what we hear is literally information? So you’re told, you’re given facts, information, but also there is a lot that we need to guess, you know, we may we need to make an informed guess about something that is not explicitly stated. But it’s inferred, right? So and this is really hard for children. So for example, pronouns are an example in case they’re an inference, right? She/he doesn’t mean anything, you have to make a guess, informed guess, about the reference of he and she, depending on what you’ve learned before, so I’ve done some work on only English only with my colleague, Alessandra Valentina here at Reading on inferencing in narratives, but I’d like to go back to this and really unpack sort of different types of references, but also going back to doing this bidirectionally. And looking across linguistic inference, hopefully, with English Italian bilingual children, because I have not worked on Italian for so long. And it’d be really good to go back and do some, some work on my own first language as well.

[Vittoria] That is so interesting. And I, yeah, I have a lot of interest in this area as well, because I have worked with bilingual children, and I’ve done something similar on the crosslinguistic influence in phonetics for my master’s dissertation. So that’s really interesting.

[Ludovica] Let’s talk more then!

[Vittoria] Yeah, absolutely. I’d love that.

[Brittany] Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. Thank you so much for your time today as well. I think we could continue talking for many hours, but for the sake of everyone’s time, we won’t. But thank you so much for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed it and that you learned some cool things, or at least some thought provoking information. I know I certainly did. A special thanks to professor’s Serratrice.

[Vittoria] Ludovica Serratrice.

[Brittany] Thank you, for her time and for sharing her expertise and experiences with us. If you’re interested in learning more about her and her wonderful work, you can find links on our website, and in the episode description. On our website, you can also leave us a review and let us know what you think and send us any questions that you might like us to answer. Tune in next time to keep learning about how languages shape us and the environment around us. As always, stay safe, stay healthy and…

[Ludovica] Ciao, alla prossima!

[Vittoria] Au Revoir

[Brittany] Adiós!


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