2011 Brumfit Award prize runner up Rebecca Sachs provides an overview of her thesis

2011 Brumfit Award prize runner up Rebecca Sachs provides an overview of her thesis, which was praised for the high quality of its content and presentation

Individual differences and the effectiveness of visual feedback on reflexive binding in L2 Japanese

In the field of second language acquisition, one of the ultimate goals of research into aptitude-treatment interactions is for language educators (and software developers) to be better able to tailor instruction to the needs and abilities of language learners. This thesis attempted to take a step in that direction.

In a computer-mediated experiment, 80 English-speaking university students learning Japanese were randomly assigned into three conditions which provided different types of information about a complicated area of grammar: the interpretation of reflexive pronouns. At least three facts make Japanese reflexives a difficult learning target for native speakers of English: (1) Reflexives can be ambiguous in both languages; (2) certain interpretations which are available in English are not possible in Japanese, and vice versa; and (3) the rules underlying their use are abstract and are not taught explicitly in language classes.

Fortunately, linguists have developed tools for representing abstract linguistic phenomena via visual diagrams; however, not everyone finds such analyses intuitive. Thus, in this experiment, a variety of individual characteristics were measured in order to explore which abilities might be relevant to learning from metalinguistic visual diagrams versus from more meaning-oriented approaches.

In the end, the group of learners who were shown grammatical diagrams demonstrated more reliable learning than the others overall, but there were patterns of individual ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ in each group which appeared to reflect the affordances of each condition. For instance, grammatical sensitivity and visual short-term memory were positively related to performance among learners in the diagrams group, whereas rote memory for language and years of Japanese study predicted performance among learners who were simply told whether their interpretations were right or wrong.

Clearly, ‘aptitudes’ are aptitudes for something, and they can be found in the interactions between learner profiles and instructional conditions. The more we learn about how individual differences shape performance under different circumstances, the more successfully we will be able to harness the potentials of various techniques for more efficient language learning.

Judges comments

It is difficult to find fault with this exceptional thesis, which clearly involved an immense amount of work in its conceptualization, implementation and analysis. The literature review is comprehensive and used expertly to craft the research questions and methodology. The research design ambitiously attempted to investigate the effects of different feedback conditions as well as aptitude-treatment interactions, and to begin to tease apart the complex interplay between individual differences and language learning.

View related posts on the prize winning work of Dr Catherine van Beuningen and Dr Guanfang Zhao