Research Briefs, Science & Technology

Exploring the linguistic mosaics of Montreal bilingual speakers

Montreal is a one-of-a-kind city for several reasons: It has a vibrant nightlife, an incredibly rich history, and an amalgamation of diverse cultures. Yet, nothing in Montreal is as iconic as the role of language in shaping the city’s unique culture. As most Montrealers speak both French and English, casual conversation can be a mix of words and phrases taken from both languages. Although linguistic research in Montreal has mostly focussed on French speakers, the content of what Montrealers say in their conversations has, until now, received little scientific attention

A recent study from the McGill Department of Psychology provides insight into which language bilinguals choose to speak while engaging in various conversation topics. Participants were asked about 21 subjects ranging from news to culture, as well as which language they used to discuss each subject in various environments, including school, work, home, and their social lives. Remarkably, none of these communicative contexts showed the same number of topics or pattern of language use. 

Mehrgol Tiv, a Ph.D candidate studying experimental psychology at McGill and lead author of the paper, explained how a novel application of an existing methodology was used to analyze participants’ responses. 

“Often, when we conduct research studies in the cognitive sciences, we do so in a laboratory, where many of the elements that make up the real world are controlled or not taken into consideration,” Tiv wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “We adopted network science as a robust tool to represent the real-world complexities of language use.”

Network scientists use mathematical tools to map the strength and frequency of connections within datasets, which are then represented as visual models. This method has diverse applications across scientific disciplines, from tracking COVID-19 transmission to mapping neurons in the brain. 

Using this framework, Tiv and her colleagues calculated the total number of conversation topics across different situations, how often the topics overlapped, and which language was used to discuss them. The subjects of each conversation were then visually represented as individual units, called nodes, which form links within the network model to other topics of conversation. Researchers use lines of differing thicknesses to estimate the rate of co-occurrences between two or more topics. When translated into a graphic, these colour-coded nodes and links describe a complex network of speech patterns.

“The content of conversation makes up the collective discourse, which can tell you a lot about the goals and values of a group of people or a society,” Tiv wrote. “It answers a different set of questions than studying how people speak. Many of [these questions] are social in nature.” 

Researchers surveyed 115 university-age participants, who completed questionnaires about their language use and conversational patterns in different areas of their lives. The results demonstrate just how dynamic bilingualism in Montreal really is. No two communicative settings showed the same distribution of French versus English, suggesting that language use is connected to social and contextual cues.

According to the study, bilinguals use their dominant language across a broad range of conversation topics and within a greater number of contexts, including at home, school, and work. In contrast, they found that participants engaged in discussions on a more narrow range of topics in conversations held in their non-dominant language. 

The focussed, repetitive environment of many workplaces could explain why participants reported speaking mainly in their dominant language and about fewer topics. Social settings, which tend to invite dynamic conversations with larger groups of people, showed the most variation in both conversation topic and language use. 

The study’s findings are consistent with a linguistic theory called the complementary principle, which proposes that bilinguals tailor their language use in different social situations. This is certainly the case in Montreal, where fluency in both French and English can greatly improve job opportunities.  

“There is a lot going on linguistically in Montreal,” Tiv wrote. “It’s the culmination of historical forces like colonialism, modern-day immigration, and a host of other social factors which give rise to Montreal being a unique place to study bilingualism.”

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  1. Nigel Spencer

    It is indeed revealing that Montréal is the only city in Canada where bilingualism is worth studying!

  2. maureen mcmahon

    How much confidence can researchers have in participants’ self-reporting in a study like this?

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