Mutual intelligibility

of closely related languages




Topics for BA and MA theses within our project

We encourage students to choose a subject for their MA thesis which is related to the research carried out within the Micrela project on the mutual intelligibility between closely related languages. Read the full project description for inspiration or have a look at the suggestions for topics below.

If you are interested in writing your BA or MA theses with us, you are welcome to contact us at any time. We are happy to discuss the possibility to supervise your own project if it fits into our research.

In case you don't have your own project yet, you might be interested in one of the following topics:


English as Lingua Franca

Many different languages are spoken in Europe and respect for linguistic diversity is a core EU value. In 2007 the High Level Group on Multilingualism (HLGM) published a report noted a lack of knowledge about mutual intelligibility between closely related languages in Europe, as well as a lack of knowledge about the possibilities for communicating through receptive multilingualism.

Receptive multilingualism utilizes the fact that many people can understand closely related languages while speaking their own language. In the Mainland Scandinavian or in the Czech and Slovak language areas, people traditionally communicate across language borders each using their mother tongue, while still (to a certain degree) understanding the other, closely related language. These speakers are receptively multilingual.

In this project we want to find out whether there are some language combinations (or rather speaker-listener combinations) for which receptive multilingualism is a more effective way of communicating than using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). More specifically, we investigate whether intelligibility of a very closely related language is higher than intelligibility of accented and ungrammatical English by a speaker of the same language.

That means we are interested in how intelligible ELF is to non-native speakers of English. In particular, we will investigate one of the following research questions:

Master students are encouraged to choose two closely related languages from these language families and investigate this topic for their specific pair of languages.


Intelligibility of Catalan for speakers of Romance languages

Spanish and Portuguese are mutually intelligible to some degree. If languages are mutual intelligible to a higher degree that means the speakers can communicate with each other by just using their own language. This project investigates how intelligible Catalan is to native speakers of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French or Romanian and vice versa. Using a cloze test, a picture-pointing task or a word translation task, the intelligibility of written and spoken Catalan will be investigated and correlated with linguistic distances (phonetic, morphological, lexical, syntactic) between these languages.

This project can use the MICReLa web-application which has been developed for 16 European languages to collect data. Catalan will be added as the 17th language and data acquisition will be conducted online.

The candidate should speak at least one Romance language (ideally Catalan or Spanish). The tasks include finding Catalan speakers and recording them, preparing the audio and written stimulus material for the app, conducting the experiment, establishing the distances based on the Levenshtein distance measurements and analyzing the data.



Regular sound correspondences between Germanic languages

When comparing closely-related languages, one would not be interested in linguistic distances only, but in the regularity of the differences as well. Does regularity of differences ease the mutual intelligibility of closely-related languages? For example:

may suggest that Dutch /ui/ usually corresponds with German /au/

In this project we measure regularity of pronunciation differences between Germanic languages. We focus on Danish, Dutch, English, German and Swedish. For each pair of languages the regularity of sound correspondences will be calculated by calculating an entropy measure. The student will consider correspondence of single sounds and of small groups of sounds, i.e. n-grams.

The results will enable us to answer at least two questions:


'Bridge languages' in Europe

Languages are usually grouped into different language families, where each language is assigned exactly one language family. Dutch, for instance, belongs to the West Germanic language family. The categorisation is usually made on the basis of the language's linguistic features, such as syntax, morphology and lexicon. However, when two languages are in close contact, linguistic features can be borrowed from one language into another - even if these languages belong to different language families.

This project investigates the hypotheses that there are languages which have borrowed so many features from geographically close, but typographically distant languages, that they could serve as 'bridge languages' between the two associated language families. Examples are Sorbian (a Slavic minority language spoken in Germany), Romanian (a Romance language spoken in East Europe, surrounded mostly by Slavic languages) and even English, a Germanic language which has borrowed many Latin and French words.

Ideally, a Master thesis would pick one particular bridge language and describe its features with regard to the two language families in question (Germanic and Slavic for Sorbian, Romance and Slavic for Romanian, Germanic and Romance for English), as well as test the intelligibility of the bridge language in neighbouring countries and vice versa, to investigate whether the hypothesis can be verified.


Minority languages as bridges

Similarly to languages that can be considered being bridges between language groups, there may be minority languages which could serve as bridges between standard languages which belong to the same language group. We mention three examples here, but many examples can be added.

Low German or Low Saxon has been recognized by the Netherlands and by Germany (since 1999) as a regional language according to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Low German is spoken in the Northeast of the Netherlands and the North of Germany and has similarities with High German. However, Low German has not been influenced by the High German consonant shift (except for old /ð/ having shifted to /d/) which makes it more similar to Dutch.

Limburgish has been an official regional language since 1997, and as such it receives moderate protection under Chapter 2 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Limburgish is spoken by an estimated 1.6 million people in both Belgian and Dutch Limburg and Germany. Linguistically the term Limburgish refers to dialects spoken between the Benrath line (the maken-machen isogloss: dialects north of the line have the original /k/ in maken (to make)) and the Uerdingen Line ( the ik/ich isogloss: the line separates dialects which preserve the -k sound at the end of a word (north of the line) from dialects in which the word final -k has changed to word final -ch (IPA [x]) (south of the line)), which are mainly characterized by a partial participation in the High German consonant shift (as High German did) and the use of pitch accents.

Bildtish is a dialect spoken in the area Het Bildt in the North of the province of Friesland. The dialect started out around 1505 when the area was reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch nobility County of Holland. To do this feat, workers moved from South Holland, North-Holland, Zeeland and Brabant, and their dialects mixed with the local Frisian dialect. The dialect is often considered as a creole language and was in 2009 spoken by approximately 3600 people in six villages. Using and writing Bildtish is encouraged by Stichting Ons Bildt.

We hypothesize that Low German and Limburgish could be used a bridge between German and Dutch, Low German especially for areas in the North of Germany and the Netherlands, and Limburgish especially for the South of the same countries. Additionally we hypothesize that Bildtish could serve as a bridge between Dutch and Frisian. In order to test these hypotheses the following questions will be investigated: To what extent are Low German and Limburgish understood throughout Germany and the Netherlands geographically? Do speakers of the standard languages find understanding Low German or Limburgish significantly more difficult than understanding their own standard languages? When does a speaker of Low German or Limburgish need to switch to English? To what extent is Bildtish understandable in different parts of the Netherlands? Would Bildtish have been a better choice as a standard language in the Netherlands?

In order to answer these questions, web-based intelligibility tests will be performed. In the project it should be taken into account that both Low German and Limburgish are umbrella terms of dialectologically heterogeneous areas. The results of this project will highly impact the language policy of the authorities and schools in Germany and the Netherlands with regard to minority languages.


Language attitudes in Europe

Many people have specific ideas about which languages sound pleasant and which do not. Most linguists agree that these language attitudes are rarely based on the linguistic properties of the language in question, but can be explained more accurately by factors such as personal experience with the speakers of that language ('social connotations hypothesis') or general stereotypes about the language, its speakers and their country/countries ('imposed norm hypothesis').

Eliciting language attitudes might shed light on attitudes held by one specific group towards another group of people, for example the attitudes that speakers of Dutch hold towards speakers of Frisian. Those attitudes might not be overtly articulated by the people but can be elicited by asking the participants to judge the personality of a speaker of a specific language. If two different recordings from a bilingual speaker are used (e.g. in English and French) the judgment of the speaker's personality can be directly compared across those languages. It has been shown consistently that listeners judge the same speaker differently depending on which language he or she speaks. Research on language attitudes has been conducted on a large scale since the 1960's. Often attitudes towards two languages in close contact have been compared, e.g. English/French in Quebec, London/Yorkshire dialects in the UK, or recently in our project Danish/Swedish in Scandinavia, and Serbian/Croatian on the Balkan.

This project investigates language attitudes held by speakers of different European language towards other European languages, which might not be in close contact with the listeners' native language. In our own project we only elicit language attitudes within language families, but currently there is little knowledge of which language attitudes Europeans hold towards languages from different language families than their native.


Learning to understand a foreign language

When two people with different native languages meet, they have several possibilities of communicating with each other:

The latter option is quite frequently used in some regions, e.g. in mainland Scandinavia. The languages are so closely related that speakers and listeners only need to adapt a little in order to be able to communicate with each other. However, there are many other regions in Europe where the languages spoken are closely related. Examples are Dutch and Frisian.

In an on-going project, we try to develop a short teaching session which teaches listeners the most common sound correspondences between Dutch and Frisian, and thereby enables speakers of Dutch to understand Frisian better with a minimal effort. In this project, a similar approach is tested, extending the intervention from containing pronunciation patterns only to including even lexical and semantic patterns, i.e. teaching the participants highly frequent words and semantic fields which differ across the two languages. It is also possible to develop a sound-correspondence-intervention with two different languages, e.g. Spanish and Portuguese, German and Dutch, Slovene and Slovak or Danish and Swedish.