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New Centre of Excellence – linguistics and language studies:

The value of multilingualism

Multilingualism has an impact both on individuals and on society as a whole. The new Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan (MultiLing) in Oslo is set to carry out research on the dynamics and ramifications of multilingualism.

Increased migration and globalisation leads to a more multilingual society. More and more people are growing up in families with parents who speak different languages. Pupils in Norwegian primary schools represent over 150 languages. Living in a global society also entails a greater demand for English language skills in all sectors of society than has previously been the case.

“Multilingualism is becoming increasingly prevalent in this day and age. In our research, we want to study people who know and use different languages at various stages of the lifespan. The research will shed light on the possibilities and challenges of multilingualism, at both the individual and the societal level,” states Elizabeth Lanza, Professor of Linguistics and Director of the MultiLing Centre at the University of Oslo.

Photo: Annica Thomsson Elizabeth Lanza (Photo: Annica Thomsson) Language across the lifespan

Researchers at the centre will study how children, youths, adults and seniors acquire and use the languages they know, and how language competence and usage change across the ages of the lifespan. MultiLing is breaking new ground by examining language acquisition and use across the lifespan and within a societal perspective.

“Previous research has looked at language within an individual lifespan perspective. We are going to combine psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics to study how language is learned and used in different groups in different social arenas and in different stages of life,” Dr Lanza explains.

Many questions to be answered

How do children acquire several languages from birth? How can health clinics, day-care facilities and schools manage the multilingual resources of children in the best possible way? How do adolescents use the languages they know and what impact does this in turn have on the Norwegian language, for instance? How is the working environment of Norwegian companies affected when the use of English gains ground? These are among the many questions that the centre will address.

“Language use among the elderly is of particular interest since little research has been carried out on this. We need more knowledge about this now that many first generation immigrants to Norway have become seniors. For example, what issues will the health sector face in providing care for older immigrants? The health personnel that consult with and treat this group are facing a number of new demands in regard to language,” Dr Lanza explains.

Norway as a “language laboratory”

The centre also focuses on the management of language in society and the impact of social and political power relationships on multilingualism. What is the impact of language ideology and policy on social institutions that deal with multilingualism in individuals at various stages of the lifespan?

Globalisation has resulted in an increase of linguistic diversity in countries such as Norway. At the same time, Norway already has a strong multilingual tradition involving Sámi, Kven, Norwegian sign language, Norwegian Romani and Vlach Romani, as well as Yiddish and Modern Hebrew among the Jewish population. And there is a wide variety of different dialects in everyday use across the country.

Dr Lanza points out that Norway is interesting from a linguistic perspective precisely because of the country’s wide acceptance of different dialects – an ideology that usually runs counter to how most other countries view language.

Photo: Elizabeth Lanza ROOTS: Generations of Norwegian-Americans have sought to maintain their Norwegian identity. Multilingualism plays a vital role. (Photo: Elizabeth Lanza)

Research on multilingualism before and now

The view on multilingualism has changed dramatically in the research literature. Up to the mid-1960s, multilingualism was viewed primarily as something negative, an idea stemming from, among other things, poorly designed tests carried out in the US that characterised immigrant groups as being of lower intelligence.

“Today better and more valid tests have been developed, indicating that multilingual individuals are neither more nor less intelligent than others. Today, language is viewed more as a resource and researchers stress the cognitive benefits of multilingualism.”

“Modern neurolinguistic research suggests that bilingual children may have certain cognitive advantages and that knowledge of more than one language may delay the onset of dementia. Pupils who have taken part in bilingual educational programmes over time have the greatest success in school,” Dr Lanza adds.

Language in the family

Societal ideology affects the attitude towards languages in the individual family. This has an impact on how actively languages are used and, thus, learned by children. This topic will also be addressed by the centre. For example, do families in which Turkish is used make a greater effort to maintain their language in Norway than families in which Dutch is used? To what extent is passing on a language a cultural core value? What roles do new technology and social media play in language use in the home?

“Family language policy is a growing field of enquiry, bridging the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches to multilingualism. This is an area in which we need to gain more knowledge,” Dr Lanza states.

Involving the users of research

According to Dr Lanza, there are important societal consequences of multilingualism. The centre will map out the need for knowledge on multilingualism in the Norwegian school system and health sector, as well as other segments of working life.

“To succeed we will need a close dialogue with the users of the research. This dialogue is a vital part of the research process itself. Users should not just be given research findings, but should also have the opportunity to participate in, and shape, the research questions to make them relevant to their own needs,” Dr Lanza concludes.

Senter for Flerspråklighet (“Center for Multilingualism” in Norwegian)
Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan (MultiLing)
  • Objective: To generate scientific knowledge on individual and societal multilingualism. The Centre’s vision is to contribute to how society can deal with the possibilities and challenges of multilingualism through increased knowledge, promoting agency for individuals in society, and a better quality of life, regardless of linguistic and social background.
  • Centre director: Elizabeth Lanza, University of Oslo
  • Partners: MultiLing has an international Scientific Advisory Board and cooperates with a number of institutions and researchers, both nationally and internationally (see the webpage for more details) 
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council of Norway: NOK 14.5 million
  • Total person-years: 17
  • Number of doctoral degrees planned: 23

MultiLing’s website:


Written by:
Christian Lund/Else Lie. Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann
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