Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Cutting-edge SU lab studies science behind multilingualism
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 30/09/2021

*In celebration of the opportunities and possibilities multilingualism creates, the Division of Learning and Teaching Enhancement is hosting a Language Day conference on 30 September. As part of this celebration of multilingualism, we will highlight some of the projects currently under way at Stellenbosch University.

​At Stellenbosch University (SU), multilingualism is not only entrenched in policy and encouraged among students and staff – it is also being studied in a cutting-edge laboratory, using innovative methods and advanced equipment.

The Multilingualism and Cognition (MultiCog) Laboratory in the Department of General Linguistics is the only one of its kind on the African continent. The research facility, which studies how multiple languages are organised in the brain and affect cognitive functioning, has been operating since 2018, having secured funding from the National Research Foundation and SU's own institutional budget.

“Language is uniquely human. No other species has developed a semiotic system of signs and symbols as complex and as varied as language to convey meaning," says Prof Emanuel Bylund, research leader at the MultiCog Lab. “This raises questions regarding the human mind; about how we acquire and process language, and what the premises and potentials of our language capacity are."

Exploring these issues becomes even more intriguing when working with multilingual people."

Researching the language development and cognitive processing of people living in different multilingual populations, Prof Bylund has already worked with speakers of German, Afrikaans, Spanish, isiXhosa and Swedish.

“The Linguistic Diversity Index gives one an indication of the likelihood that any new person that you might meet will have the same mother tongue as you. In the United Kingdom, this likelihood is 85%; in South Africa, it is only 13%," he explains. “This makes South Africa, with its multitude of languages, the ideal setting to study aspects of multilingualism."

Ironically, however, the majority of psycholinguistic research on multilingualism from the perspective of linguistics, philosophy, psychology and anthropology to date has been done in Europe or North America, despite these regions traditionally being very monolingual.

“Because of this bias, the topic of language and the mind is a vastly underrepresented research area in South Africa, which has consequences for our knowledge about the psycholinguistics of local languages," Bylund says.

For this reason, the MultiCog Lab was set up in South Africa with the express intention to generate more case studies, teaching material on linguistics as well as research from the global south.

“We need more localised work on how people produce and understand language, acquire language skills, and about their language-related cognitive functioning," Bylund stresses. At the same time, it is important to validate whether findings made in other parts of the world still hold true for South Africa and other multilingual regions in the global south. If not, this might have implications for what we believe to be true about how language develops in children and adults.

The MultiCog lab is equipped with eyetracking devices, soundproof booths and advanced software to study how multiple languages are organised in the brain, and what their effect are on cognitive functioning.

The eyetracking devices were, for instance, used in preparation of a paper published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics earlier this year. First-language and second-language English speakers from South Africa were presented with 20 English words, each paired with an Afrikaans word, while EyeLink devices followed their eye movement. The beginning sound of each word pair overlapped phonetically: For instance, the English word “lion" was paired with the Afrikaans word “laai" (meaning “drawer"). The words were shown on screen and also played in the headphones that participants were wearing. The results showed that second-language English speakers, even those quite proficient in the language, were generally more likely to glance at the Afrikaans word, as it had the same initial sound as the English word – a phenomenon known as “cross-language activation".

The paper was authored by MultiCog lab manager Dr Robyn Berghoff, together with MA student Jayde McLoughlin and Prof Bylund.  

Another MultiCog study is currently investigating how someone's perception of time starts to change once asked to read mirror writing (i.e. in reverse, from right to left), while a further project is exploring whether the different languages of a multilingual speaker cause the person to arrive at different decisions in terms of moral judgements, risk taking and consumer behaviour.

Having access to the latest technology is a great benefit, Prof Bylund says. Yet his team's most valuable tool remains the people who are able to speak more than one language and are willing to participate in their research projects.

“The level of linguistic and cultural diversity in South Africa is unmatched by the contexts usually investigated in research on language and the mind, which offers tremendous opportunities for groundbreaking research," Bylund adds.

  • Prof Bylund and Dr Berghoff are also the founders of the African Psycholinguistics Association, which brings together scholars from across the continent, all studying the nexus between language and cognition from different perspectives. Moreover, the MultiCog Lab has an international board with senior international researchers, including Profs Marianne Gullberg of Lund University (Sweden), Panos Athanasopoulos of Lancaster University, and Guillaume Thierry of Bangor University (both in the United Kingdom). ​