Tool for Intergenerational Transmission Assessment (TITA)

With almost one third of human languages facing imminent extinction (Lee & Van Way, 2016), the identification and the assessment of the vitality of these languages has become a major priority for many disciplines, including the fields of linguistics, public health, ethnobotany, etc. The vitality of a language is usually assessed using one of several scales (e.g., Fishman 1990’s Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale; Lewis & Simons 2010’s Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale; the UNESCO Framework, amongst others). The touchstone for language revitalization scales is Fishman’s (1991) Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS), which is an eight-point scale of a language’s vitality. Here we focus on the Expanded GIDS (Lewis & Simons, 2010), as this provides a more thorough breakdown of stages of language vitality. These stages range from Extinct (level 10) to International (level 0). The crucial point in the scale is when the language tips from Vigorous (level 6a, ’The language is used orally by all generations and is being learned by children as their first language’) to Threatened (level 6b, ’The language is used orally by all generations but only some of the child-bearing generation are transmitting it to their children’).

The importance of IGT is shown to similar degrees in other scales used in the field as well: The UNESCO Framework (2009); the Ethnologue Vitality Categories (Lewis, 2009), etc. Perhaps no where is this shown more clearly than in the most recent of such scales: the Endangered Language Index, put forward by the Endangered Language Catalogue (ElCat). In a recently published position piece, two of the developers of ElCat say the following: ’Just as other frameworks, such as the GIDS and EGIDS, have recognized intergenerational transmission to be the most critical factor in assessing vitality, ELCat also views intergenerational transmission as essential to ensuring language vitality: ’the importance of intergenerational transmission is irrefutable, for it is certain that a language ultimately faces extinction if the younger generation has no knowledge of it. ELCat identifies intergenerational transmission as the most critical factor in assessing level of endangerment.’ (Lee & Van Way, p.12-13).

And yet, despite the singular importance of IGT, no RIGOROUS AND REPRODUCIBLE METHOD exists for assessing whether a minority/threatened language is being transmitted to the next generation. When researchers report that a language is / is not being transmitted, the evidence provided is occasionally qualitatively quite robust (e.g., Gao, 2015), though never quantitatively documented. And in fact, in most cases, evidence for IGT (or lack thereof) is either sporadic, anecdotal, or entirely absent. In the absence of a rigorous and reproducible method for the assessment of IGT, the assessment of the vitality of endangered languages will always be subjective and variable. And so for the sake of scientific rigor, a scientifically-based method for assessment is needed.

Moreover, communities themselves often are unaware that their children are not fully acquiring a language. It is all too common that community members feel that their children are acquiring a language, whereas the children are only partially acquiring that language (see, for example, the heritage language literature, e.g., Benmamoun, Montrul & Polinsky, 2010). Thus a tool is needed that will provide researchers and communities with quantifiable statistics on the actual degree and rate of acquisition within a community. This may be used by researchers and/or community members to mobilize resources and social awareness towards efforts to improve the rate of acquisition amongst the youngest generation of speakers.

The Tool for Intergenerational Transmission Assessment

Over the last year, team of graduate students and I have designed the Tool for Intergenerational Transmission Assessment (TITA): a highly customizable and portable tool, easily administered in field contexts, that takes six different measures of children’s language acquisition and produces an estimate for the likelihood of successful IGT. There are numerous challenges to the design of such a tool. First, the tool must be easily implementable by field researchers and community members. That is, the tool cannot be technical or require experimental expertise. Such technical tools already exist (e.g., the Hawai’i Assessment of Language Access (HALA) Project, O’Grady,, 2009), and because of their technical demands, such tools have not been widely adopted by the field. Second, the tool needs to be grounded in the scientific research that exists on both the assessment of bilingual proficiency and dominance, as well monolingual language acquisition. The TITA accomplishes both these desiderata.

The TITA consists of six measures (referred to as instruments, and labeled TITA-1, TITA-2, etc.). It is recommended that a researcher implement all six instruments for the most robust and dependable measure, though as few as two are sufficient to produce a useful measure. The TITA was designed with this in mind, and so the first two instruments are survey-style instruments (easy and quick to administer), while the last three instruments directly measure knowledge in children (the remaining one is a mix between survey and direct measurement). These two categories of instruments are needed because while direct measurement of children might be preferred, such methods are hard to administer, and this limits how many children may participate in the TITA. Including this kind of flexibility in which instruments to administer ensures that the tool will be implementable even by those with little-to-no expertise in experimental methods. The instruments are ordered (and discussed here) in descending order of importance to the integrity of the TITA.

TITA-1: Household Adult Language Profile (HALP). The input to children is a crucial determinant of whether a language is acquired or not. We know from decades of research that plentiful and prolonged exposure to a language is required for successful and full acquisition (e.g., Hart & Risley, 1995). Moreover, it is generally agreed that there is a minimum amount of exposure that a child needs relative to the dominant language in order for the child to become proficient in the minority language. Hoff (2012) suggest that at least 30% of the input must be in the minority language in order for a child to grow into a competent bilingual. The HALP is designed to assess the degree to which adults in a household use the minority language in the presence of the child. It begins by collecting some basic demographic information, followed by questions about the language(s) of their community and education. This is followed by Likert-style questions on which language they speak the best, how much of each language they speak in the home, with family outside the home, etc. Moreover, the HALP assesses the adults’ attitudes towards the minority language, on the thinking that positively predisposed adults are likely to impart more importance to the language, and therefore increase the likelihood that it will be acquired by children. This instrument is short and takes 5-7 minutes per adult.

TITA-2: Child Language Profile (CLP). There is a large amount of research that shows that parental reports on a child’s language abilities, while not perfect, are a good proxy for direct measurement of child competence. Moreover, parental surveys are significantly easier and more practical to administer. The CLP therefore asks the primary care giver of a child about the child’s abilities in the minority language and the dominant language. The questions target both usage rates, as well as competence and fluency. Additionally, questions about domains of use are included, to measure whether the language is used exclusively in the home or elsewhere as well. Together, the HALP and the CLP provide a profile of the input to children in the community, as well as measurements of children’s proficiency and domain usage.

TITA-3: Adapted Communicative Development Inventory (CDI). Based upon the MacArthur-Bates CDI (MBCDI, Fenson, 1993), a thoroughly tested and well accepted method to assess the acquisition of vocabulary, we developed the TITA CDI template. The motivation behind the MBCDI is that assessing children’s vocabulary directly is very difficult. It is not possible for a researcher to stay with a child for the entirety of a day, for weeks on end, hoping to capture all the words that a child says. Assessing comprehension is even more difficult. And so the MBCDI lists 500 of the most common words known to children and simply asks parents to check off the ones that their child has said (production) or understands (comprehension). For the purposes of TITA, we could not simply replicate the MBCDI, since there are numerous words that children in non-Western communities would not be familiar with. Moreover, any list of words that we created would be inappropriate for some community somewhere (e.g., the word for mud or dirt may not be as child-relevant in a desert, sand-covered environment as in a tropical or savannah context)

We therefore created a template of 250 words, along with instructions for how users of TITA might create their own CDI. The intent was to provide as much of the final CDI product as possible, while still providing flexibility, but at the same time maintaining some level of structure across all instantiations of the TITA CDI. Our 250-word template includes words that we considered universal (body parts, nature terms, animal terms, etc.). We then provide instructions on how a researcher might modify this list to make it appropriate to their context. We set limits to the number of words in each semantic category, and provide examples of alternate templates. The idea simply is to have researchers put together a list that is appropriate to the community they are investigating, but which has the same structure as other modifications of the TITA CDI. This, therefore, constitutes a parental report on children’s control over core vocabulary.

TITA-4: Picture Selection Vocabulary Comprehension Task. Based upon commonly used tools in the assessment of first language acquisition such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Task (Dunn & Dunn, 2007), the fourth instrument consists of 25 pairs of pictures that directly test children’s ability to comprehend some basic vocabulary items. The pictures depict items such as common animals (dog, chicken, etc.), common actions (crying, running, etc.), and common household items (e.g., a knife). The child is shown two pictures from the same semantic category (e.g., animals), and asked to identify one of them (e.g., where is the chicken?). The child’s accuracy is recorded. This is a very basic, though direct, measure of the child’s vocabulary, and augments the findings from the TITA-CDI.

TITA-5: Picture Description Task: This too is based upon a common method in the assessment of monolingual children. The child is shown 25 pictures in sequence, and for each picture, the child is asked to identify either what is depicted in the picture (for nouns), or what the person in the picture is doing (events).This is another direct, though low-level, measure of a child’s productive abilities with basic vocabulary in a minority language. If a child is unable to succeed fully on TITA-4 and -5, then this provides good evidence that the minority language is not being transmitted successfully.

TITA-6: Direct assessment of a signature property of the target language: This final instrument is the least structured, but may only be necessary in cases where a researcher suspects children are acquiring the target language, but in a manner that is significantly different from their parents. A language’s signature property is often one that is marked, or unusual, with respect to the more common and dominant patterns in the world’s languages. Such features might be the most susceptible to obsolescence (or attrition), and so TITA provides a framework for researchers to investigate the acquisition of specific features. For example, a Polynesian language might lose its ergative properties in the face of dominance from a language like English or French. Or a Philippine language might start to lose one of its voice patterns in the face of a dominant language like English. Or a Papuan language might begin to lose its clause chaining devices in the face of the dominant Tok Pisin. Or a Mayan language might begin to lose the antipassive construction in the face of Spanish dominance, etc. If a researcher or language activist suspects that such signature properties are being lost, or may be lost, the TITA provides assistance in investigating this issue.

The concern about TITA-6 is that language documentation researchers and activists are not aware of methods to assess specific features of a language. They may not even be able to identify the crucial features to assess. To address this, we have devised a two-pronged approach. The first is to provide a host of sample experiments, fully fleshed out, along with the entirety of the experimental items. For example, we have a full set of picture selection items to elicit transitive actional sentences, such as the boy chased the girl (taken from a Samoan study on declarative clauses done by Muagututia, Deen & O’Grady, 2016). Such items could be used to assess alignment patterns, agreement patterns, case patterns, etc. We also have a full set of relative clause elicitation and comprehension items (taken from a Tagalog study on relative clauses conducted by Tanaka, 2016). A third example set of experimental items involves the elicitation of wh-questions, taken from Muagututia (in progress). Each of these experiments is provided free of charge to researchers interested in implementing TITA-6 in their own language. All items are provided, along with instructions on how to conduct the experiment, how to record the data, how to analyze the data and how to report the data. A website is currently being set up to publicize this service, and when the TITA is finally disseminated, we hope to have at least ten such sample experiments. Moreover, an informal (free of charge) consultant service has been established whereby researchers interested in implementing an assessment of a particular feature in a language may contact the TITA PI for assistance in designing and running such experiments (the contact information for this service is

Together, then, these six instruments provide a comprehensive and rigorous method to assess the rate of intergenerational transmission in a minority community. There are numerous other factors that go into the assessment of IGT, all of which are addressed in the TITA Manual, currently in progress. Some of these factors are:

1. How many children must one test? The answer to this depends on the size and complexity of the language situation. If the community is small and cohesive, then a relatively small number of households need to be assessed. From these, extrapolation to the rest of the community should be possible. But if the community is larger, or spread out geographically, or consists of multiple sub-communities, each with their own dialect, then sampling from each of the sub-communities will be needed. Guidelines for rough numbers per sample are provided in the TITA Manual.<

2. How are the scores from each instrument aggregated? A specific formula is provided in which the scores from each instrument are collected, standardized and then aggregated into a single score. This then constitutes the TITA Score that researchers include with their published report on the vitality of a language.

3. What happens if a researcher is unable to conduct all six instruments? The TITA is designed such that it is not necessary that all six instruments be used. We fully expect TITA-1 and TITA-2 to be the most used, followed by TITA-3, and then TITA-4-5. We expect a small minority of researchers to use TITA-6 due to the logistical difficulty posed by designing and implementing a new experiment. Nonetheless, the TITA was designed such that scores from 2 instruments may be used to calculate an overall TITA Score. Moreover, the number of instruments that go into the calculation of a TITA Score is then included, as a kind of confidence score. The researcher therefore reports the TITA Score along with a confidence level, e.g., TITA Score=83/100, confidence =4/6.

Currently, TITA is being piloted on heritage children in Honolulu, mostly speakers of Philippine languages born in the USA, but who hear either Ilocano or Tagalog in the home. Their grasp of this home language is weak compared to English, and so this population is a good approximation to the target populations in the field. Regardless, actual distal field piloting is required so as to demonstrate that the TITA can be easily administered in the field; that the TITA can be used in a variety of communities; that the TITA is not technologically burdensome; that a subset of the six TITA instruments may be used to good effect; that TITA-6 can be developed with relative ease. We are currently seeking funding for travel and data collection in each of four field sites in South East Asia.

If you are interested in this project, or wish to pilot the instrument (or part of it), get in touch with me: kamil at hawaii dot edu