Linguistic distance, language learning, and educational attainment

Linguistic Distance

In this project we will investigate how language similarities and differences affect learners’ success in acquiring a new language and how it affects educational attainment. We examine large samples of students covering preschool to university age.
Linguistic distance among European languages (Source: Stephan Steinbach,
Linguistic distance of European languages (source: Stephan Steinbach,

Project information

Project duration


Funded by

Research Council of Finland - Academy Research Fellow

Funding amount

651 683 EUR

Project coordinator

University of Oulu

Contact information

Project leader

  • Associate Professor in English Foreign Language Acquisition and Language Pedagogy at the University of Copenhagen & Research Fellow of the Research Council of Finland (University of Oulu)

Other persons

Project description

Through migration and mobility, linguistic and cultural diversity has been growing exponentially around the globe. Consequently, schools must cater to the changing realities of multilingual classrooms. Majority language proficiency constitutes a foundational skill for multilingual students’ academic attainment and integration into society. Students’ non-native language status may negatively affect their educational trajectories and professional success across their life course. This raises the question of how we can best facilitate overall academic and second/foreign language development across educational contexts for these students.

Drawing from education, linguistics, and psychology expertise, this multidisciplinary project will investigate the role of linguistic distance, i.e., how similar or different languages are from one another, on educational outcomes. In educational research, the status quo to categorize learners’ language status is binary, native versus non-native. Doing so oversimplifies more complex underlying linguistic processes and is heavily confounded with socioeconomic status. Binary language categorization disregards that speaking a mother tongue similar to a second or foreign language offers benefits of facilitative transfer that may also impact achievement in content classes, such as mathematics or science. Our team will analyze existing well-documented large-scale datasets (N 4000-1,7 million) and newly collected data from Finland and Germany. We will employ linguistic distance as a novel measure to gain differentiated insights into how learners from diverse language backgrounds benefit from language similarities or struggle with differences when learning a second or foreign language. Beyond language outcomes, we will investigate how linguistic distance affects learners’ performance in mathematics and science subjects and their overall grades at the end of primary and secondary school.

The results of this project will provide a detailed account of how linguistic distance explains educational success across diverse contexts and settings. Using linguistic distance as a novel measure is a critically important tool for educational research as it considers language similarities as a potential resource. Based on the results, recommendations will be disseminated to support educators in diverse language contexts and guide education policies.

Project results

Jaekel, N., Ritter, M., & Jaekel, J. (2023). Associations of students’ linguistic distance to the language of instruction and classroom composition with English reading and listening skills. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 45(5), 1287–1309.

Jaekel, N., Schurig, M., Schwinning, S., Ferencik-Lehmkuhl, D., & Ritter, M. (2023). Investigating the Effects of Linguistic Distance on German and English Reading and Mathematics among Fifth-Graders in Germany.

Affiliated research:

Jaekel, J., Aubert, A. M., Jaekel, N., Costa, R., Johnson, S., Zeitlin, J., & Group, S. R. (2023). Associations of language barriers with behavioural and socio-emotional problems among 5-year-old children born very preterm across Europe [Preprint]. Open Science Framework.