In Europe a large number of languages are spoken. These languages enjoy different statuses, some are officially recognized, while others are spoken by minority populations. Respect for linguistic diversity is a core EU value but the linguistic diversity can lead to communication problems that might only be reconciled with sufficient knowledge about the language situation at hand. In 2007 the High Level Group on Multilingualism (HLGM) therefore published an overview of research topics that should be investigated to improve communication within Europe while still preserving multilingual richness. Two of these topics form the basis for the present investigation. Firstly, the HLGM notes a lack of knowledge about mutual intelligibility between closely related languages in Europe and the lack of knowledge about the possibilities for communicating through receptive multilingualism, i.e., where speakers of closely related languages each speak their own language. Secondly, the HLMG notes a need for an evaluation of the potentials and limitations of the use of English as a lingua franca at the European level. More knowledge is needed about how well speakers of various languages in Europe understand each other in English.
We propose a large-scale investigation of the mutual intelligibility of closely related languages within the Germanic, Slavic and Romance language families. The results will be correlated with linguistic factors, such as phonetic and lexical distances, as well as extra-linguistic factors, such as language attitudes towards and familiarity with different languages. Tests will also be carried out with English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) to compare the (mutual) intelligibility of closely related languages with the (mutual) intelligibility of ELF as spoken by the same groups of speakers.
Intelligibility, attitude and familiarity tests will be carried out by means of web-based experiments. The results will be will be made available through the internet. They will provide a basis for developing a model that explains mutual intelligibility between closely related languages. In a more general sense the results will provide a greater understanding of the robustness of the human language processing system. How deviant can a language be before it is no longer intelligible to the listener? The results will also be of great value to European policy makers. A publicly available user-friendly internet application will be developed for use by future target groups of researchers and policy makers. In this way additional languages can be tested later that were not initially included in the project.