Information structure in bilingual speakers

Cross-linguistic influences and language dominance
Project management

Laura Hodel

01.2017 - 12.2021

Swiss National Science Foundation, project funding, project no. 176338

The aim of the project is to examine the different ways in which French, German and Italian speakers achieve cohesion in narrative spoken discourse. Our approach is derived from theories and methods developed in research on information structure.

To enhance discourse cohesion, languages generally have a range of linguistic devices to choose from, for instance, particles (aussi, auch, anche [also]), temporal adverbs (finalement, schlussendlich, alla fine [in the end]), or contrastive pronouns like lui in French. These linguistic devices are what make it possible to create anaphoric links between actions and protagonists in a narrative.

Various studies have revealed typological differences between languages regarding the availability of linguistic resources and the frequency of their use. These language differences influence how information is organised in texts that are produced by native speakers of a given language. By contrast, productions by second- or foreign-language learners can be influenced by tendencies in the linguistic repertoire of their first language.

Our project pursues these investigations in the context of language contact and asks the following questions:

  • How do monolingual and bilingual speakers in Switzerland encode information on protagonists, actions and temporality in each of their languages?
  • When cross-linguistic influences are suggested, what form do they take, and can they be partially explained by language dominance?

To answer these questions, we investigate anaphoric links produced in oral narratives of 200 to 250 participants. Data were collected with the help of a sequenced film (Finite Story, Dimroth: 2006).

A further project aim is to determine whether native speakers detect such subtle differences, i.e. whether they perceive narratives (e.g. in Swiss German) constructed using another style (e.g. Italian) as being different. To this end, an exploratory study in which participants are invited to evaluate different texts is developed. This research question is situated within the current interest on different discourse styles at advanced levels of foreign language teaching.

Purpose – Expected results

Title of the thesis by Giulia Berchio (2021) : Modellare la lingua in contesto in situazioni di bilinguismo: monologhi in italiano e svizzero tedesco di parlanti a dominanza linguistica variabile
The aim of this thesis was to describe, by means of quantitative and qualitative analyses, the linguistic repertoire of speakers with Italian and Swiss German as their main codes, in particular with regard to their tendency, in both languages, to use linguistic strategies aimed at structuring information and conferring cohesion on discourse units in speech. As the focus of this thesis is on individual bilingualism, it was also of interest to understand whether and to what extent language dominance can have an effect on the linguistic behaviour of speakers. Finally, a number of linguistic phenomena potentially categorizable as cross-linguistic influences and derived from the data of bilinguals were brought to the attention of speakers classified as quasi-monolinguals (of Italian/Swiss German) in order to observe to what extent these phenomena are possibly perceived as particular, non-idiomatic.