Characterizing the multilingual's linguistic profile

Rast, Rebekah

The American University of Paris, France


Characterizing the multilingual’s linguistic profile

Researchers of bilingualism and/or multilingualism, such as Grosjean (2000), Dewaele (2001), Bialystok et al. (2004), to mention only a few, use questionnaires to ascertain the language background or linguistic profile of their subjects. This methodological step is necessary in order to be able to say something about the role that subjects’ current and prior linguistic knowledge and experience play in language performance or socio-linguistic grouping. Work has recently blossomed in the area of third language acquisition where researchers are now investigating the role of not only the first language, but other languages as well in the acquisition of a third language (cf. Cenoz et al. 2001). In this research context, the need for accurate reports of our learners’ linguistic backgrounds takes on new importance. We need to ensure that we are asking our subjects the right questions, and that our method of interpreting respondents’ answers is reliable.

The study presented here examines the responses of 80 university-level subjects from drastically diverse language backgrounds to a questionnaire designed to investigate the linguistic profile of potential subjects in a selection process for a speech perception task. We encountered bilingual subjects whose profiles fit common terms such as balanced bilingual and early bilingual , as well as less common ones such as vertical bilingual and dormant bilingual (cf. Safont Jordà 2005; Wei 2000). Such labels, however, were confounded when analyzing responses of multilingual subjects with knowledge of three or more languages (the majority of our subjects). We found cases of individuals who were, for example, early bilinguals with two other languages learned later in life, one of which is now the “strongest” of all four known languages. Studies in the past have often overlooked such cases and have either eliminated the subject’s data from analyses or have grouped such individuals into general categories, viewing such differences as negligible. In doing this, we have ignored important information about our subjects’ language experience and knowledge.

This paper presents results of the 80 questionnaires collected and proposes exploratory solutions to the problem of accurately describing one’s linguistic profile , while also posing questions with a view to furthering discussion of this methodological challenge.


Bialystok, E., Craik, F., Klein, R. & Viswanathan, M. (2004) Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence From the Simon Task. Psychology and Aging 19 (2), 290-303.

Cenoz, J., Hufeisen, B. & Jessner, U. (eds) (2001) Cross-linguistic Influence in Third Language Acquisition: Psycholinguistic Perspectives. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Dewaele, J.-M. (2001) Activation or Inhibition? The Interaction of L1, L2 and L3 on the Language Mode Continuum. In Cenoz, Hufeisen & Jessner (eds), 69-89.

Grosjean, F. (2000) Questionnaire pour personnes bilingues. Unpublished document. Université de Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Safont Jordà, M. (2005) Third Language Learners: Pragmatic Production and Awareness. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Wei, L. (2000) The Bilingualism Reader. London: Routledge.

Session: POSTERS: Focus on interaction, discourse, media, professional settings
Friday, April 4, 2008, 12:45-15:45
room: foyer