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Review of  Language and Aging in Multilingual Contexts

Reviewer: Liang Chen
Book Title: Language and Aging in Multilingual Contexts
Book Author: Kees de Bot Sinfree Makoni
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 17.384

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Date: Tue, 31 Jan 2006 16:00:35 -0500
From: Liang Chen
Subject: Language and Aging in Multilingual Contexts

AUTHORS: De Bot, Kees; Makoni, Sinfree
TITLE: Language and Aging in Multilingual Contexts
SERIES: Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Liang Chen, University of Georgia.


This book deals with language and aging in multilingual contexts.
While the three empirical studies reported in the book were not
conducted within any particular theoretical framework, issues related
to language and aging were discussed in the general framework of
Dynamic Systems Theory. The authors strongly recommend a
multilingual and multicultural perspective toward issues related to
language and aging, contending that ''[A]s with monolingualism, the
assumption of mono-culturalism in any society is wrong, and that
applies to the elderly population as much as it does [to] other
populations'' (p. 77). The book contains 10 chapters, a preface, and a

Chapter 1, ''Introduction: Language, Aging and Multilingualism'' (pp. 1-
4), sets the stage for the rest of the book via its discussion of four
issues: the definition of aging, the definition of language, the role of
memory in language use, and multilingualism. Aging is seen as ''a
change on three interacting dimensions: biological, psychological and
social'' (p. 1). Just as aging is seen as a system in development, so
language is presented as a complex dynamic system and language
use is described as a ''very advanced and complex skilled behavior''
(p. 2). Multilingualism is defined as ''being proficient to a certain degree
in more than one language'' (p. 3).

Chapter 2, ''Language and aging: A Dynamic Perspective'' (pp. 5-15),
first provides a brief introduction to Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), in
which a dynamic system is defined as ''a system of interacting
variables that is constantly changing due to interaction with its
environment and self reorganization'' (p. 5). The authors then suggest
that DST and DST perspectives on the development of complex
systems provide a reasonable framework for the study of language
and language development (particularly language in aging),
as ''language shows all the characteristics of a dynamic system'' (p. 7).
If we were to adopt a DST perspective on language and language
development, several related conclusions would follow. First,
language development takes place across the life span. Second,
different levels (i.e., physical, psychological, and social) of change in
aging form a dynamic and interactive system themselves, and
language change in aging is a result of such dynamic interactions.

Chapter 3, ''Language and Communication with the Elderly'' (pp. 16-
26) reviews some sociolinguistic research on language used by and in
conversation with elderly people. The review focuses on three aspects
of the life setting that relate to language: attitudes towards the elderly
and aging, changes in communication patterns within and between
generations, and the use of special registers (''elderspeak'') with
elderly people. This type of research on language and communication
with the elderly is important in fostering the use of effective
communication strategies in interactions with the elderly, and plays a
role in the perspectives on eldercare. While there is a large body of
research on language used in interaction with and by elderly people,
many questions remain unanswered. For example, the ways in which
cultural differences might affect the evaluation of elderspeak by the
elderly themselves remains unclear (p. 21), as do the linguistic
characteristics by which younger generations classify individuals as
old (p. 22). The chapter ends with a discussion of communication with
elderly people in multilingual nursing homes, where residents with
different mother tongues may have limited opportunity to interact in
their preferred language. As the authors point out, ''a fairly new trend
in research on aging is geared towards elderly in multilingual settings,
in particular for elderly in nursing homes in which their preferred
language may not be spoken to them, either because no one speaks
it, or because staff and residents speak different languages'' (pp. 25-

Chapter 4, ''Language Use and Language Skills in Healthy and
pathological Aging'' (pp. 27-43), suggests that a sociolinguistic
perspective on language and aging be complemented by
psycholinguistic research on language use and linguistic skills in the
elderly, and that both approaches take multilingualism into
consideration. To this end, the chapter focuses on the linguistic
characteristics of elderly person's language, and reviews research on
production and perception of language at the phonological, lexical,
syntactic and pragmatic level in both healthy and cognitively impaired
elderly people. Production data from the healthy elderly suggest
deterioration in verbal fluency and articulation, word finding problems
in decontextualized tasks, a tendency to avoid using complex
sentences, and superior narrative skills (though narratives may suffer
from the elderly person's reduced effectiveness in conveying
information). Age clearly affects phonological production: there is a
strong correlation between specific voice characteristics and age.
Apart from some minor effects (possibly due to task or cognitive and
physical changes) language comprehension is generally well
preserved in normal aging. In pathological aging (mainly dementia),
language production sees decline in word retrieval, grammatical
complexity, propositional content, and in the use of conversation
building devices; however, language comprehension at both syntactic
and discourse levels is well retained. No conclusions can be drawn
from the meager information on phonological skills (either production
or perception) in cognitively impaired elderly people.

Chapter 5, ''Resources in Language and Aging'' (pp. 44-59), looks at
the role of cognitive resources (e.g. memory, attention, speed of
processing), education, the social and linguistic environment, and
multilingualism in language use and language development. From a
DST perspective, all these resources interact within the complex skill
of language.

Chapter 6, ''Multilingualism, Aging, and Dementia'' (pp. 60-77), argues
that those conducting research on language in aging should devote
more attention to multilingual perspectives, and should consider the
use of multiple languages in the diagnosis and treatment of elderly

Chapter 7, ''Bilingual Aging in Older African-Americans'' (pp. 78-96),
reports results from an empirical study on the effects of aging,
education, working memory, and physical status on verbal and
category fluency in African-Americans. According to the authors, this
type of research is significant (both socially and scientifically) for
several reasons. First, the number of older African-Americans is
increasing rapidly. Second, elderly African-American people as a
group are more susceptible to late-life dementia due to their relatively
low level of education. Third, there is very little research on language
in aging within this population. Fourth, these types of studies may
bring insights into the impact of bilingualism on aging. The authors
take a broad conceptualization of bilingualism, treating the two
dialects--namely, African-American vernacular English (AAE) and the
so-called Standard American English (SAE)--as two languages. Fifty-
three African-Americans aged between 46 and 97 were tested on a
combination of health, cognitive and language measures. Tests
administered included the Bilingual Aphasia Test, which uses verbal
and category fluency as language measures; the Digital Span Test,
which is used to assess attention and working memory; the
Assessment of Activities of Daily Living, which measures health status;
and the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), which measures
mental health. Research participants were assessed in both AAE and
SAE, although the assessments were conducted separately. Results
indicated that language performance (narrowly operationalized as
verbal and category fluency) did not necessarily decline with age, and
that the performance of the subjects on verbal fluency was better
when assessed in SAE than in AAE. Results also showed that higher
levels of education went with higher fluency scores.

Chapter 8, ''The Effects of Age and Education on Narrative Complexity
in Older Chinese in the USA'' (pp. 98-117), reports on a study on the
effects of age and education on grammatical and narrative complexity
in elderly Chinese. The research participants were twelve Chinese
people, aged between 63 and 78, who lived in New York City. Among
them, eleven were born in mainland China, and one was born in New
York. Researchers elicited two narrative samples from each
participant by asking them to describe the Cookie Theft Pictures from
the Boston Diagnostic Aphasia Examination, and to narrate their most
unforgettable childhood memory. Results indicate that (a) education
correlates with syntactic complexity but not necessarily with narrative
complexity, and (b) age is not correlated with narrative complexity, but
is correlated with syntactic complexity. Because narrative complexity is
not ''necessarily compounded by education'' (p. 117), the authors
suggest that narrative assessment might serve as a useful diagnostic
tool to assess cognitive functioning or impairment.

Chapter 9, ''Language in an Epidemiological Study: The North
Manhattan Aging Study in New York City'' (pp. 118-132), presents
raters' judgments of different levels of communicative abilities present
among African-American, Latino, and Caucasian elderly people in
North Manhattan. A total of 2,014 elderly people took part in the first
assessment; 1,381 took part in the second assessment 18 months
later; and 996 of them took part in the third assessment, which took
place 36 months after the base assessment. A questionnaire was
compiled from some widely used protocols in mental testing in aging
research, and administered to the subjects by trained interviewers.
These interviewers also rated the communicative abilities of the
subjects. The interviewers and subjects were matched for race and
ethnicity. Results suggest that (a) the communicative abilities of the
elderly people in this study are generally preserved, despite clear
indication of word finding difficulties in language production; (b) raters'
judgments about the communicative effectiveness of subjects are
influenced greatly by the educational status of the subjects, and (c)
these judgments varied across the three different ethno-racial groups,
even when the subjects and raters were matched for race and

Chapter 10, ''Old and New Perspectives on Language and Aging'' (pp.
133-144), revisits some of the issues discussed in Chapter 3. It
examines how changes in language skills and the availability of
resources interact with changes in the life setting and, more
particularly, with changes in communication patterns.


There is an increasing body of literature on age-related changes in
language use and language skills. The large body of research on
language and aging, however, ''is dominated by researchers in North
America'' (p. 60), and is heavily biased toward monolingualism. It is
often the case that there is not even the slightest suggestion of a role
for a multilingual perspective. The studies presented in the book are
important in several respects. First, it is unclear whether having more
than one language is an asset or a problem in aging, and to what
extent. Therefore, the three studies mentioned above, in spite of their
narrow definition of language skills, may represent an important step
toward understanding language and aging in diverse bilingual
populations. In addition, because adequate assessment and
intervention with aging bilinguals is obstructed by the absence of basic
information about the effects of normal aging on the bilingual
condition, the studies reported in the book may provide important
information regarding service delivery to bilingual elderly people.
However, these studies are only exploratory in nature and have left
more questions asked than answered. It is evidently the hope of the
authors that the book will spark more vigorous studies oriented toward
multilingual, multi-ethnic, and multicultural perspectives on language in

No book can be perfect, and no book can make every reader happy.
However, the book would make more readers happy if the authors
had had a clearer idea of the readership in mind. The authors may
have considered the book as an introductory piece on issues of
language and age, as seven of the ten chapters are devoted to laying
out the foundation for the three chapters on empirical studies.
However, if it is introductory, one might expect that the presentation of
the literature would be more reader friendly and assume that the
reader had little background knowledge of the subject. This is clearly
not the case. For example, Chapter 3 devotes one section to the
characteristics of elderspeak and stresses that not all communication
with elderly people can be placed under the elderspeak label (p. 22).
However, the chapter does not adequately define elderspeak, leaving
the uninitiated reader with no idea of its exact characteristics. On
page 17, a distinction is mentioned between the ''despondent'' elderly
and the ''Golden Ager'', but the authors neither provided a reference
for this distinction, nor did they offer any explanation. Uninitiated
readers would benefit from a step-by-step, clear, and organized
introduction to the general issues of language and aging in
multilingual contexts.

On the other hand, the authors may have considered the book as a
more advanced scholarly work. With this in mind, the readers may feel
a little disappointed in several regards. First of all, the research
questions are not always well presented. The three chapters (seven,
eight, and nine) that report on the empirical studies conducted by the
authors leave one with the impression that too many questions are
jammed in there to be solved within the space of a couple of pages of
writing. Second, the interaction effects between the several variables
(e.g., education, age, health status, working memory, language skills,
language background, task formats, and languages in which a task is
administered) are not always sorted out clearly when the final
analyses of the data are presented. This is unfortunate, especially
when the authors take a Dynamic Systems Theory perspective on
language, thus acknowledging the inherent interactions between
these variables. How do we know that the difference in language
performance (e.g., verbal fluency) between people from different age
groups is related to education, or to age, or to working memory, alone,
rather than a combination of these factors? The authors leave many
of these possibilities unaddressed. Another serious flaw occurs in the
study of elderly bilingual Chinese in chapter eight. While the language
background of the participants is not explicitly mentioned, it's clear
that they may speak different dialects of Chinese. These different
dialects are mutually unintelligible as far as spoken language is
concerned. Therefore, the language these elderly Chinese used in
narration may not have been their first language. Consequently, the
correlation found between education, syntactic complexity, and
narrative complexity may not exist, and the results may merely support
a correlation between syntactic and narrative complexity on the one
hand and familiarity with or proficiency in the language of narration on
the other.

Liang Chen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of
Communication Sciences and Special Education at the University of
Georgia. His major research interest is language development across
life span in diverse contexts.

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