Switching back and forth among languages in a conversation may sound a tongue-twister for some people, but it’s a normal reality for others. In a world where multicultural parents are no longer found only in movie scripts, bilingual youngsters will cross our paths more frequently than ever. It is believed that at least half of the world’s population is bilingual to date, and this number should keep rising. What amazes me is the fact that the need for trade and/or land first pushed people to speak other tongues. And this dates back to events occurring many centuries ago. Certain other changes in languages are a fruit of this era, in which a language evolution was imposed on certain folks by social or political pressure. Therefore, digging into bilingualism research is definitely worthwhile, especially nowadays, thanks to the drive for technology in the field.

My research topic is an outcome of several questions bilingualism researchers have been thinking about. For instance, does my native language change when I move to a different country? If so, is this change permanent or temporary? Is it possible to forget my native language? What happens when we are constantly switching from a language to another as a result of a multilingual environment? Is there a critical age for language learning that impacts bilingual processing and speech? These questions represent the starting point of my research, in which I investigate the effects of bilingualism on different populations of Italian speakers: 1) speakers who learned two languages from infancy, such as those born to Italian parents who settled abroad: the so-called ‘heritage speakers’, and 2) speakers who left Italy after puberty and moved to a foreign country in adulthood, the so-called “late bilinguals.” We differentiate between people who moved to a new country before or after puberty because there is a maturational stage that seems to be of great importance in language acquisition. In fact, this stage is called a ‘critical period,’ and it seems more difficult to acquire fluency in a language once exposed to it post-puberty.

In order to carry out my research, until now I’ve used traditional methods. However, I hope to utilize more innovative techniques, such as eye-tracking, during my studies later on. This approach aids researchers in tackling the complexity of the mechanisms of bilingual speech. I bet you haven’t thought that a PhD in human sciences could deal with technological tools, have you?

Imagine now for a second how South Africans process all the tongues they are fluent in, taking into account that there are eleven official languages in this country! It seems that being a polyglot is just a very commonplace reality in there… Lots to still be studied!

I am Chiara Gargiulo, a PhD candidate at the department of Italian studies at Lund University in Sweden with Prof. Petra Bernardini and Prof. Verner Egerland. I work at the SOL center - Språk och litteraturcentrum - in the University of Lund in Sweden.


Digital Art

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso