What’s the best way to teach children a second language? New research produces surprising results

Article was originally published by The Conversation, reposted with permission

Authors
1. Karen Roehr-Brackin, Reader, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex
2. Angela Tellier, Associate Fellow, University of Essex

People often assume that children learn new languages easily and without effort, regardless of the situation they find themselves in. But is it really true that children soak up language like sponges?

Research has shown that children are highly successful learners if they have a lot of exposure to a new language over a long time, such as in the case of child immigrants who are surrounded by the new language all day, every day. In such a scenario, children become much more proficient in the new language over the long term than adults.

But if the amount of language children are exposed to is limited, as in classroom language learning, children are slow learners and overall less successful than teenagers or adults. How can we explain this apparent contrast?

Researchers have argued that children learn implicitly, that is, without conscious thought, reflection or effort. And implicit learning requires a large amount of language input over a long period of time.

As we get older, we develop the ability to learn explicitly – that is, analytically and with deliberate effort. Put differently, adults approach the learning task like scientists. This explains why more mature classroom learners have greater success: they can draw on more highly developed, efficient, explicit learning processes which also require more effort.

Which is best?

When it comes to learning a language, however, it is not a question of either implicit or explicit learning. They can coexist, so it is more often a question of how much of each approach is used.

In our new study, we asked whether younger children who are generally thought to learn implicitly had already developed some ability to learn explicitly as well. What’s more, we looked at whether the ability to analyse language can predict foreign language learning success in the classroom.

We worked with over 100 Year 4 children, aged eight to nine, in five primary schools in England. The children took a number of tests, including a measure of their language learning aptitude, which assessed their ability to analyse language (language-analytic ability), to memorise language material (memory ability) and to handle language sounds (phonological awareness).

Over one school year, the children participated in language classes for 75 minutes per week. For this purpose, they were divided into four groups.

In the first half of the school year, each group was taught, respectively, German, Italian, Esperanto or Esperanto with a “focus-on-form method”. This method involved the teacher drawing the children’s attention to regular patterns in the language, asked them to think about what particular parts of words might mean or how sentences are put together in the language, for example. In other words, the children were encouraged to use their language-analytic ability, taking an explicit approach.

In the other groups, language was taught in a way that is typically used at primary school, that is, entirely playfully with games, songs and worksheets. This method is more likely to result in implicit learning.

How important is memory to a child’s ability to learn a second language? Shutterstock

In the second half of the school year, all groups experienced the same type of language class: they all learned French, taught with a focus-on-form method. For our study, we assessed the children’s progress in French over the second half of the school year and then looked at whether any components of their aptitude – language-analytic ability, memory ability, phonological awareness – would predict their success in learning French.

If children learn implicitly, we would expect that memory ability would be most important. In other words, the ability to pick up language material as you hear and see it is most relevant. If children learn above all explicitly, we would expect that language-analytic ability would be most important.

The results

Differently to what people might expect, we found that the children’s language-analytic ability was most important, followed by phonological awareness. These two abilities contributed to predicting the children’s achievement in French, while memory ability was only marginally relevant. This suggests that children as young as eight or nine years can indeed learn explicitly to some extent, if the teaching method they experience encourages them to engage in analysis of the language to be learned.

Our results are in line with a previous study which directly compared children and adults experiencing different teaching methods. Here the researcher also found that learners’ use of an explicit approach in the foreign language classroom did not exclusively depend on age, but on how learners were taught. This means that even younger children can approach a learning task like scientists.

Of course, it is important to note that children of primary school age are still developing their ability to learn explicitly. Therefore, we cannot expect to teach them languages in exactly the same way as we would teach teenagers or adults. But some activities that encourage children to consciously reflect on and analyse the language material to be learned can be introduced to make best use of the limited class time that is available for foreign language teaching.

 

Albert Valdman Award Winners 2017

Blog post from Akira Murakami and Theodora Alexopoulou:

We wish to express our sincere gratitude to Studies in Second Language Acquisition and Cambridge University Press for selecting our paper, ‘L1 influence on the acquisition order of English grammatical morphemes: A learner corpus study’, as the winner of the Albert Valdman Award. The paper is based on the PhD thesis of Akira, who first grew his interest in SLA when he learned about the natural order in an undergraduate SLA class. It is an interesting coincidence that his very first journal paper turned out to be on the topic and eventually won this prestigious award. Morpheme studies in the 1970’s and 1980’s let us believe that the morpheme acquisition order is universal. Modern large-scale learner corpora have made it possible to empirically test the claim on a large dataset. We believe our study exemplifies a case where large-scale learner corpora contribute to SLA research, and it is our hope that more SLA researchers will turn to corpora as a data source in their research.

Trump’s Monolingual Disadvantage

Blog Post by Douglas Kibbee, author of Language and the Law: Linguistic Inequality in America

Early in the fall of 2016 several news agencies speculated that Donald Trump might be suffering from early onset dementia.  Could this be related to his adamant monolingualism?  During his campaign Donald Trump rebuked Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish, telling him to talk English, he’s in America (2015).  In the campaign against Hilary Clinton, Trump dismissed bilingual communities, refusing to advertise in languages other than English. America will not be made great by making it monolingual.  Monolingualism is not just a threat to national security and economic competitiveness.  It’s a threat to public health.

One of the greatest weaknesses of our educational system is the decline in foreign-language education, confirmed in a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (The State of Languages in the U.S. A Statistical Portrait, https://www.amacad.org/multimedia/pdfs/publications/researchpapersmonographs/State-of-Languages-in-US.pdf).  The Academy’s report describes a decline in offerings of foreign language education and the widening gap between American education and the rest of the developed world.  In the U.S. only a fifth of K-12 students are enrolled in languages other than English, compared to more than half of European students.   Middle schools offering other languages have dropped from 75% to 58%, effectively foreclosing the possibility of advanced competency.  At the same time, the benefits of dual-language immersion are substantial : by the eighth grade students in dual-language immersion programs are a full year ahead of their counterparts in English language skills.  A study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University placed Mr. Trump’s English skills at a 5th-6th grade level, by far the lowest of any of the serious candidates from either party.

As a policy issue, the decline in foreign-language education may reflect a fundamental misconception of education’s role. The fragmentation of education represented by home schooling and the charter school movement is a means to make education confirm what students (and their parents) already believe, rather than to challenge them to understand a diverse world. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Education, spins this as a rejection of “one size fits all” education, but in fact it’s a rejection of very foundation of education.  Self-segregation by race or religion is on the rise, while students avoid exposure to other ways of thinking, including language.  Eva Moskowitz, CEO of one of the largest charter school groups (Success Academy in New York) bragged to the American Enterprise Institute about dropping foreign language education at her schools, serving, or disserving, 10,000 students in New York.

Apart from the social, economic and political consequences, monolingualism turns out to be bad for public health.  Scientific evidence for a bilingual cognitive advantage has been building.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that knowing two languages significantly improves transferable brain skills, an advantage psychologists call the “executive function system” of the brain.  The development of this sytem, located in the prefrontal cortex, is described by Canadian psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Fergus Craik as “the most crucial cognitive achievement in early childhood”.  The executive function system allows children to focus their attention, to distinguish relevant from distracting information, and to remember more accurately sequences of colors or shapes.

The scientific evidence is sometimes contested and certainly merits more, and more sophisticated, research, but it is clear that over one’s lifetime there are advantages to bilingualism.  Most clearly, Bialystok and her team found that for bilinguals the onset of dementia was delayed by over four years, compared to the onset age for monolinguals.  The advantages of lifelong bilingualism were confirmed in recent PhD research by Henrietta Boudros of Central Michigan University.

Computer brain games to maintain cognitive function have become a multibillion dollar industry, but the claims of the commercial applications are largely unsubstantiated.  A recent review of the research concluded “the evidence larely does not support claims of broad cognitive benefits from practicing the sorts of cognitive tasks used in most brain-training software” (Simons et al 2016, 172).  In short, the computer brain games make you better at playing computer brain games, but have little or no proven effect on cognition.

Instead Simons and his team found that “the development of such capacities appears to require sustained investment in relatively complex environments that afford opportunities for consistent practice and engagement with domain-related challenges” (2016, 112)  – exactly the challenges that learning and maintaining a second language provide.

Instead of mocking foreign language knowledge we, as a nation, should encourage it, both in educating our children and in supporting our bilingual communities.  We have done this in the past, as my book demonstrates; now more than ever it is essential that we embrace bilingualism.  Denial of language education and the suppression of bilingualism is not just a threat to national security, to international economic competitiveness, but also to public health.  It’s never too late to start learning another language, Mr. Trump.  Maybe Russian?

SSLA Announces the 2016 Albert Valdman Award Winner

Cambridge University Press and Studies in Second Language Acquisition are pleased to announce that the recipients of the 2016 Albert Valdman Award for outstanding publication in 2015 are Gregory D. Keating and Jill Jegerski for their March 2015 article, “Experimental designs in sentence processing research: A methodological review and user’s guide”, Volume 37, Issue 1.  Please join us in congratulating these authors on their contribution to the journal and to the field.


Post written by Gregory D. Keating and Jill Jegerski

We wish to express our utmost thanks and gratitude to the editorial and review boards at SSLA for selecting our article, ‘Research designs in sentence processing research: A methodological review and user’s guide,’ (March, 2015) for the Albert Valdman Award for outstanding publication. The two of us first became research collaborators several years ago as a result of our mutual interests in sentence processing, research methods, research design, and statistics. With each project that we have undertaken, we’ve had many fruitful and engaging conversations about best practices in experimental design and data analysis for sentence processing research. This article is the product of many of our own questions, which led us to conduct extensive reviews of existing processing studies. Our recommendations are culled from and informed by the body of work we reviewed, as well as our own experiences conducting sentence processing research. Stimulus development and data analysis can pose great challenges. It is our hope that the information provided in our paper will be a useful resource to researchers and students who wish to incorporate psycholinguistic methods into their research agenda and that the study of second language processing will continue to flourish in the future.

SSLA Announces the Albert Valdman Award Winner

Cambridge University Press and Studies in Second Language Acquisition announce the Albert Valdman Award.

This new annual award, in honor of Founding Editor Professor Albert Valdman, is for an outstanding paper in the previous year’s volume.

The 2015 award is given to Dr. Sible Andringa, University of Amsterdam, The Use of Native Speaker Norms in Critical Period Hypothesis Research, Volume 36, Issue 3.


Post written by Dr. Sible Andringa, Amsterdam, February 2015

When I heard my paper ‘The use of native speaker norms in critical period hypothesis research’ won the Albert Valdman award for outstanding publication in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, I was truly surprised. I didn’t know the award existed.  It turns out the award is new and that my paper is the first ever to receive it. Still, even if I had known about the Albert Valdman award, I would have been equally surprised. Studies in Second Language Acquisition is a high-quality and high-impact journal, and every issue invariably contains excellent work. That my paper was chosen from such an excellent array of publications– I just couldn’t believe it. What makes it even more amazing that it won, is that the paper itself was never planned:  a true case of serendipity. The paper is based on data collected within the so-called ‘Studies in Listening’ (or Stilis) project, on which I worked together with my colleagues Catherine van Beuningen, Jan Hulstijn, Nomi Olsthoorn and Rob Schoonen. The project ran from 2007 to 2011 and we planned several papers, but never one on the use of native speaker samples in second language acquisition research. I got the idea for this paper somewhere halfway through the project upon observing that our native speakers varied considerably, but I do not know how I came to relate this observation to the use of native speaker samples in CPH research. Perhaps my SLA course, in which we also discuss age effects in SLA, got me thinking. I did not start writing immediately – the planned papers obviously took priority, but I kept notes when I stumbled upon interesting publications, I started to attend relevant presentations at conferences, and I informally discussed my ideas at lunch meetings with my colleagues of the ‘Cognitive Approaches to Second Language Acquisition’ (CASLA) research group here in Amsterdam. In Stockholm in 2011, I presented a crude version of the paper at EUROSLA 21. It drew a crowd, as well as critical questions! I chewed on it for another year, occasionally spending a few minutes to update my notes. When I finally started writing the paper, about three years after I conceived the idea, it wrote itself, took no effort. And now it won the Albert Valdman award! Perhaps, then, this is the recipe for writing award-winning papers: postpone writing as long as you can, present the ideas and discuss it with colleagues until the paper is fully crystalized in your head. I want to take the opportunity to thank all my Stilis and CASLA colleagues here in Amsterdam and all others who provided feedback and helped me sharpen my thoughts, Studies in Second Language Acquisition’s reviewers and editorial team included. It is an excellent idea that Cambridge University Press and the new SSLA Editorial team decided to honor Founding Editor Albert Valdman with an award that carries his name and I am deeply honored and flattered that my article won this award.

SSLA Call for Editor plus a repost on “Recruiting a journal editor”

Studies in Second Language Acquisition (SSLA) is a refereed journal of international scope devoted to the scientific discussion of issues in second and foreign language acquisition of any language. SSLA is publishing volume 36 in 2014.  The journal was ranked 11th out of 162 journals for Linguistics with an Impact Factor of 1.8 in the 2012 Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Reports ®

Professor Albert Valdman is retiring from his position as Editor on June 30, 2015. Cambridge University Press is now inviting applications for the position of Editor.  A team of Co-Editors, or an Editor and Associate Editors will also be considered. Final appointment decisions will be made by the Syndicate of Cambridge University Press.

The deadline for applications is July 15, 2014.

For more information, click here.  Please direct applications and any questions to Melissa Good, Commissioning Editor, Cambridge University Press at [email protected]. Please use SSLA Call for Editor as your email subject line.


Recruiting a journal editor: An HSS Challenge
Blog Repost 

Melissa Good, Commissioning Editor for Linguistics journals at Cambridge University Press discusses the challenges of recruiting a journal editor in this blog repost below.

Some of the most important decisions that a journals publisher has to make involve selecting a new editorial team. This process can take many months, and can require careful analysis of both objective and subjective factors. We recruit and pay editors for the journals that we own, while the societies for whom we publish journals usually recruit and pay those editors themselves, sometimes with input from Cambridge.

While each of our 170-plus Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) journals has different editorial needs, there are some qualities that all good journal editors possess. The single most important quality is understanding and believing in the journal’s mission. A journal’s editor is the face of the journal, and the editor’s personality, and approach to scholarship in the field, reflect the things for which the journal stands.

Read the full blog post from the Cambridge Journals blog here

 

Taking the pulse of eye-movement research: Special issue of Studies in Second Language Acquisition.

Published on behalf of Aline Godfroid, Paula Winke and Susan Gass

Understanding how languages are learned involves investigating the cognitive processes that underlie acquisition. Many methodologies have been used over the years to comprehend these processes, but one of recent prominence is eye-movement recording, colloquially referred to as eye-tracking. Eye-tracking consists of the registration, in real time, of what an individual looks at and for how long. Thus, eye-trackers provide information about the duration and location of an individual’s eye movements on a computer screen as he or she reads text or listens to audio. Because eye-tracking is still a relatively novel technique in research on adult second language learning, we put together a thematic issue on this topic. The special issue brings together an international group of eye-tracking experts who use eye-movement data to study a variety of language-related questions. The issue also contains important methodological recommendations for colleagues who are interested in using eye-trackers for their own research.

Following an introductory chapter by Leah Roberts and Anna Siyanova-Chanturia, we have organized the empirical articles in this volume into two broad categories: (a) the processing of verbs and verb parts (morphology) and (b) the processing of grammatical gender. Eva Van Assche, Wouter Duyck, and Marc Brysbaert report findings from an empirical study about the organization of the bilingual lexicon. They investigated whether bilingual speakers process cognates (e.g., English win – Dutch winnen) faster, even if the cognate words are embedded in a unilingual sentence context, which presumably constrains which language is to be activated in the brain. Nuria Sagarra and Nick Ellis investigated the effect of participants’ native language and second language proficiency on their second language processing strategies. They compared what linguistic cue (an adverb or a verb ending) learners of Spanish preferred, depending on whether their native language was, like Spanish, a morphologically rich language (i.e., Romanian) or, unlike Spanish, a morphologically poor language (i.e., English). Aline Godfroid and Maren Uggen examined whether beginning learners of German notice irregular features in German verbs during sentence reading and, if they do, whether this helps them reproduce the verbs correctly afterwards. Paula Winke studied the effects of underlining and printing grammatical constructions in a text in red—a technique known as input enhancement—on second language learners’ attention to and learning of these grammar forms. Whereas all other research in this volume concerns written sentence processing, Paola Dussias, Jorge Valdés Kroff, Rosa Guzzardo Tamargo, and Chip Gerfen used eye-tracking to investigate language learners’ use of grammatical gender in auditory sentence processing. Finally, Patti Spinner, Susan Gass, and Jennifer Behney took a step back and considered the technical constraints that eye-tracking imposes on reading research and what this means for the relationship between eye-tracking studies and natural reading. They make the point that as more and more researchers turn to eye-tracking technology, there is a need for published guidelines about what font size and font type to use and how to define regions of interest on the screen.

All in all, this special issue affords an opportunity to pause and evaluate how some applied linguists are utilizing this novel data-collection method. We hope that this volume will be viewed as an invitation to continue and expand this exciting new line of research. (531 words)