Stories Through Research Spotlight: Our Languages, Our Lives and the Global Pandemic

This guest blog post is part of our Stories Through Research Series: Learning from UofT Researchers on How Students are Impacted by COVID-19. Each post in this series highlights three UofT research projects helping us understand student experiences and challenges in these unprecedented times. Each spotlight includes a blog post and scheduled zoom session for individuals from all areas of the University to come together as we listen, learn, and share important elements that must be engaged through conversation. Learn more at

Two speech bubbles overlapping with an icon of a globe in the top right-hand corner

Thinking deeply about how language in students’ lives has shifted during a pandemic.

Project Team: Dr. Maya Abtahian (University of Rochester’s Department of Linguistics) and Dr. Naomi Nagy (University of Toronto’s Department of Linguistics) 

To get in touch with and meet the team, come to our live zoom session next week, August 26th.

What will you remember about the COVID-19 pandemic a year from now? Will you remember the details of how it changed your daily life? How about ten years from now? Will you recognize changes that started with the experiences you are having now? 

Language and Disruptions: 

We all have experienced some disruption in our daily lives as a result of the pandemic, and although we can make predictions, only time will tell which disruptions will lead to long-term change. Linguists who study language change already pay attention to the relationship between short-term variation and long-term change. We already know that relatively minor disruptions in communication patterns and networks can lead to major shifts in language ecologies (the languages we speak and the people with whom and places where we speak them). As COVID-19 spread around the world, the question that occurred to us was this: 

How do disruptions related to the COVID lockdown affect multilingual students’ language ecologies? Does it change how often we use the languages we know? And/or the contexts in which we use certain languages? 

About the Project: 

Illustration with blue background, project title text, and a femme individual sitting in a chair typing on their laptop with conversation bubbles above their head.

Professor Nagy’s research on heritage languages in Toronto has shown us that intergenerational conversations in a heritage language keep the language alive (think about the difference between the child who is cared for by their heritage language-speaking granny vs the one who goes to day care with English-speaking caregivers). And the flip side: that peer-to-peer interaction is key for promoting shift away from heritage languages. Usually we talk about these changes in terms of major events like immigration, starting school, or moving from one community to another. But what happens in the context of a global pandemic?

Think about it: around the world COVID-19 lockdowns have resulted in abrupt shifts in the amount of time spent at home vs. out of home for work, school, and “extracurriculars.” This means a radical shift in the frequency and type of social and linguistic interactions. Most students are experiencing fewer peer-to-peer interactions with co-workers, fellow students and friends. At the same time, they have more intergenerational family interactions. How does this global event result in a change in students’ language ecologies, many of whom have been physically displaced and all of whom have experienced disruption in their daily lives?  

Engaging with Community: 

As we collect stories from students, we also hope to provide insights useful to university students, administrators and instructors, along these lines:  

  • What languages do students use regularly?  
  • Which are they most attached to?  
  • How do they describe their language practices before and after immigration? 
  • Before and during the pandemic? 

More broadly, we will learn how people talk about the concept of language loss. How does this relate to talk about relationships with family, with others, and with members of their previous home country? How do they talk about the choices that they make in terms of when they use different languages? How does it relate to how they see themselves?  

Contribute to the Project!

We have 300+ responses already for this work. We hope you’ll join us and tell your story! The survey is available here:

Want to continue the conversation? Join us in the second half of this series in our Stories through Research Zoom Session on August 26th, 1-2pm EDT.

Dr. Maya Abtahian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Rochester. You can learn more about their work and ongoing research here:

Dr. Naomi Nagy is a Professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Linguistics. For research, teachings and more, please visit:

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