The study to which this abstract refers is, at the time of abstract preparation, still ongoing. Data collection is scheduled to finish on February 28th, 2015. This qualitative, observational study uses low-involvement participant observation and informal interviews to investigate language use among bilingual nursing home residents in Ireland, whose first and second languages are Irish and English, respectively. The primary participants (nursing home residents) all show clear episodic memory deficits, consistent with mild-to-moderate dementia, although not all have a clinical diagnosis of dementia. Secondary participants are staff employed at the nursing home, most of whom also have at least a working knowledge of the residents’ first language, Irish.
This presentation will focus on the following research questions:
What are the language use and language preference patterns of Irish-English bilinguals residential care for the elderly? How do residents and others (e.g. care staff) value their languages?
Because the study is still ongoing, only tentative conclusions can be drawn at this point. However, the following patterns are emerging: This nursing home is a deliberately (on the part of both staff and management, and residents) bilingual environment, and systematic code-switching is employed to counteract potential feelings of exclusion or isolation on the part of residents. Residents express positive attitudes towards their L1 in a variety of ways, ranging from responding in Irish to Irish conversations initiated by the researcher, to meta-comments about language, accents, and appraisal of language and speech (for example when teasing staff members in a good-natured fashion for less-than-fluent attempts at Irish). Participants also value finding themselves in the role of the expert and teacher, and of the more competent and fluent speaker (as compared to some staff members, and the researcher). In addition, residents code-switch systematically to maintain smooth communication in the face of language barriers, for instance when translating for less-than-fluent staff members.
The findings of this study have potentially important implications for the social and communicative well-being of bilingual elders in residential care. Active and deliberate use of both languages can have a positive effect on participation and thus reduce social isolation. A communicative environment that encourages functional code-switching also encourages recourse to a bilingual’s cognitive resources, and furthermore casts the bilingual elder in the role of expert, which in turn contributes to the maintenance of a positive identity.
International Symposium on Monolingual and Bilingual Speech 2015, Great Arsenali Conference Center, Chania, Crete, Greece 07-Sep-2015 - 10-Sep-2015