In recent decades, the number of Low German native speakers has declined significantly. Nowadays, Low German is only to be found in bilingual speakers of Low and High German. The question how endangered Low German is depends not only on absolute and relative numbers of speakers. It also depends on whether there is a balanced bilingualism with little functional overlap between the two languages, or whether one of the two languages dominates the other, with the result that the latter language is acquired only incompletely. In particular, the question arises as to whether a dominance shift between the two languages has taken place over the past two to three generations of speakers in favor of High German, as recent surveys suggest.
The outcomes of those surveys are based on self-reports, which are generally at risk of being influenced by stereotypes and socio-cultural norms. The research project is looking for new ways to get at a more nuanced view of the nature of bilingualism in local speaker communities by using objective data. In view of the research on the relationship between task complexity, cognitive stress and acoustic properties of speech, the question arises whether acoustic effects of different stress reactions can also be found in the use of High and Low German. In complex tasks a difference in language proficiency should lead to an increase of cognitive stress when using the weaker language. The acoustic effects of cognitive stress will be investigated by means of production experiments in which bilingual speakers of three speaker generations perform speech tasks which differ in their language-specific and general cognitive workload. The acoustic analysis includes the measurement of speaking fundamental frequency, voice quality, vowel formants, and oral fluency. Recordings will take place in the municipality of Krummhörn in western East Frisia, which is one of the regions with the highest proportion of Low German speakers in Northern Germany.
The project will be innovative in evaluating language proficiency in bilinguals without resorting to the achievement of some linguistic target level. This approach seems particularly suitable for assessing the status of regional and minority languages, which are subject to language mixing and language attrition.