How HALA and the BLP can be used for an earlier detection of language attrition in the Chuvash community

Lindsey, Kate
Lindsey, Kate
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The Chuvash language, spoken by 1.2 million people in Russia, is unknowingly declining very rapidly. Less than half of Chuvash children are learning the language and a high number of Russian-dominant bilingual speakers are masking Chuvash’s steady decline. Chuvash is not alone; recognition of language loss is often delayed, especially when there is a large bilingual population. Because of this, documentation and revitalization often begin too late, after valuable community resources (e.g., fluency across all generations, usage in multiple domains, a large and supportive community) have waned or disappeared. Clearly, there is a need for a tool for the early diagnosis of language attrition, especially among highly bilingual populations. Earlier detection of language decline will give the community the opportunity to establish important revitalization programs while key resources are available. To detect this attrition, it is necessary to measure relative language strengths to determine whether bilinguals are drifting towards monolingualism. To that end, I am using two novel tools to assess language dominance among Chuvash bilinguals. The Hawai’i Assessment of Language Access (HALA) project offers a body-part naming task that elicits common lexical items in both languages and records reaction times. Studies have established a strong correlation between language strength and reaction times, even in highly fluent bilingual speakers (O’Grady, 2009). The Bilingual Language Profile (BLP) is a recently developed tool for assessing language dominance through self-reporting. It is a quick and easy-to-use questionnaire that produces a continuous dominance score and a general bilingual profile taking into account a variety of linguistic variables (Birdsong, 2012). By administering these tools simultaneously to speakers from urban and rural environments, across multiple age groups, I hope to illuminate the spectrum of bilingualism among the Chuvash using quantitative data, and also determine whether the questions posed in the BLP accurately elicit the dominance measured with the HALA project. Preliminary results from a pilot study performed among Russian/English bilinguals in Washington, DC suggest that the variables addressed in the BLP may not contribute equally to relative language dominance as the BLP assumes. Additional factors, such as environment and domain use, may give an even clearer picture of the speakers’ current bilingual profile in both tests. I have developed a questionnaire supplement and testing procedure that will control for these factors among a sample of the participants to see how they may affect the results of the HALA and BLP tasks.
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