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Linguistic Economy through transfer Source Selectivity (LESS): A neurocognitive investigation of linguistic transfer in multilingualism

Alternative title: Språklig økonomi gjennom transferkildeselektivitet (LESS): En nevrokognitiv undersøkelse av språklig transfer i flerspråklighet

Awarded: NOK 6.8 mill.

You might have heard that our brains are powerful computational machines. They certainly are, but all that processing power would be useless in the constant overload of information we live in, were it not for the fact that they also do other things very well: predict, adapt, reuse - to do more with LESS. This project focuses on the third of those abilities: the way our brains reuse old knowledge to learn new things faster and more efficiently. There are few better examples of this than language. Have you noticed that some features of your native Norwegian keep popping up when you speak English? Or is it English, your second language, that gets in the way of your Spanish? Wait, did you just say a Russian word in your French class? These glitches, which you probably have many examples of, are in fact only the tip of an iceberg we call cross-linguistic influence, or linguistic transfer, which more often than not actually works in your favour! Under the hood, your brain is efficiently assessing what in your old knowledge of language(s) can be reused, so that it can avoid spending valuable resources in learning things twice. Sometimes this will involve comparing the grammars of two languages you already know to find the most useful one. Other times, it will use this previous knowledge to direct your attention to the most important parts of a sentence you are trying to understand. Once a grammatical rule, or the structure of a word, or some other aspect of a language can be reused to more quickly learn another one, your brain will set about the very important task of moving this information in memory from a short-term storage place to a long-term one -- often when you are sleeping. How do our brains recycle old language knowledge? How important are attention and memory in this process? These are just some of the questions that LESS is here to seek an answer to, with the help of electroencephalography (EEG) and a series of carefully controlled studies on language learning.

To address the role of previous linguistic knowledge in language learning, LESS will study three groups of multilingual speakers of different types and different language combinations in Spain and Norway: Basque-Spanish, Catalan-Spanish and Sámi-Norwegian bilinguals. In series of tightly controlled longitudinal studies, these speakers will be exposed to novel languages carefully designed to contain both new and familiar features, which align differently with their background languages. Examining their learning trajectories and the evolution of their neural responses during this short but intensive language training, LESS will generate invaluable insights for long-standing debates in multilingualism studies. In particular, its results will inform questions on: (1) what specific properties of a background language lead to its selection as the source of transfer; (2) what amount of the grammar of a language is transferred once selected; (3) what do the neural correlates of this process tell us about the nature of linguistic knowledge in the brain, and how differentiated languages really are; and (4) how general cognition, through the intervention of basic processes such as attention and memory, is involved in linguistic transfer as in other aspects of language. The innovative methodology employed in LESS will, for the first time, make it possible to address these questions with large groups of multilinguals and with different types of data, accounting for both the observable behaviour of these learners and the implicit psycho- and neurolinguistic activity underlying that behaviour.


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