Author Archives: BRL

Disentangling “meaning-based” vs. “meaning-agnostic” grammar use via mathematical modeling

Learn about some exciting research on language learning from David Abugaber, a PhD candidate in Dr. Kara Morgan-Short’s Cognition of Second Language Acquisition laboratory. You can find out more about him and his research at www.davidabugaber.com or by emailing dabuga2@uic.edu.

There’s a classic joke about second language acquisition that goes something like this: an English learner on vacation in the USA gets in a terrible traffic accident. The paramedics rush to him at the scene of the crash, yelling out “Are you OK?!” Bloodied and half-conscious at the scene of the crash, the English learner stammers, “I’m… fine… thank… you… and… you?”

This joke gets at something that most classroom language learners have probably run into: the massive disconnect between “grammar as access to meaning” vs. “grammar as muscle memory.” However, traditional frameworks from linguistic theory – whether they conceive of language as hierarchical syntactic trees with discrete branching nodes or as construction-style templates with embedded meaning such as “[VERB] the [TIME PERIOD] away” – don’t distinguish between these two styles of processing. If theoretical linguists are serious about relating their field of study to language learners’ lived experiences (rather than waving their hands and saying that manifestations of language in the real world fall under the category of “performance,” outside of their abstract idealized domain of “competence”), then they should stop ignoring the fact that grammar can be used in real life – and  even used successfully – without necessarily engaging meaning.

This distinction between meaning-based vs. meaning-agnostic grammar processing can be examined by combining mathematical models from cognitive psychology with a classic artificial language paradigm that involves a covert rule wherein the pseudowords “gi” and “ul” tend to co-occur with nouns for living things whereas “ro” and “ne” tend to co-occur with non-living things. The trial structure for this experiment paradigm is shown below:

Notice that there’s two possible ways to apply the covert grammatical rule in this experiment: either by seeing “gi” and immediately activating the mental concept of “living” (thus, “grammar as meaning”), or by seeing “gi” and anticipating a button press for the answer choice “living,” without actually thinking of a living/non-living distinction (thus, “grammar as muscle memory”). These two kinds of processing can be pulled apart using mathematical models that describe cognition in two-choice reaction time tasks decisions by differentiating between processes tied to “evidence accumulation” vs. time spent in non-decision-related processes (e.g., tied to non-cognitive factors like motor speed or speed of low-level perception). One such model, called the drift-diffusion model, is illustrated below:

Reproduced from Vinding, M., Lindeløv, J. K., Xiao, Y., Chan, R. C., & Sørensen, T. A. (2018). Volition in prospective memory: Evidence against differences in recalling free and fixed delayed intentions. https://psyarxiv.com/hsrbt/

In our results, participants who consciously noticed the hidden grammar rule showed the first kind of effect: their drift-diffusion modeling results showed that bias in evidence accumulation at the start of each trial (denoted in the figure above) was affected for trials that violated the grammatical rule. By contrast, participants who did not consciously notice the rule showed the second kind of effect: they learned the rule subconsciously (as indicated by having overall faster reaction times to rule-following vs. rule-violating trials), but their rule learning was manifested as changes to non-decision times (denoted t in the figure above) such that their responses were affected because of factors outside of evidence accumulation process (maybe their index fingers were too eager to hover above the predicted answer key?). This suggests that they had become subconsciously attuned to recurring predictable button-press patterns in the experiment. These results present an interesting case study for second language educators about how successful task performance does not always require actual engagement with meaning. 

We are currently collecting data to determine whether subconscious grammar learning can occur even when button presses in the experiment aren’t predictable. For now, though, my challenge to linguists out there is: is meaning-based grammar use necessarily “better”? Doesn’t automatizing language use lead to faster and less metabolically-costly processing? As an L2 learner, I can think of so many times when having a handy memorized phrase in my holster, ready to deploy “out of the box” with “no assembly required,” took me a lot farther than a hyper-abstract metalinguistic rule that is more generalizable but kills the flow of conversation, if you have to stop and mentally apply it mid-sentence (“If there is both a direct object clitic and an indirect object clitic, then the first clitic gets replaced with se…”). To illustrate this more tangibly for any Spanish teacher out there: hasn’t this catchy earworm of a song done much more for teaching learners to say “I like ___ “, much more than a boring grammar explanation ever did?  Manu Chao – Me gustas tú – YouTube

Two new conferences on heritage language!

The first conference is The 8th National Symposium on Spanish as a Heritage Language, with a focus on the linguistic reality of Spanish heritage speakers, as well as the pedagogical needs of these speakers in a classroom setting. The conference, organized by the Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context, The Graduate Center, CUNY, takes place May 13 to May 16. Although the deadline for submissions has passed, since the conference will be held virtually, anyone interested in Spanish as a heritage language should check it out.

Second, we are happy to share information with you on the Thirteenth Heritage Language Research Institute, which focuses on language similarities / differences in bilingual situations. The conference, organized by the University of North Carolina, takes place June 7 to June 10. Once again, as a virtual conference, it is accessible to all who are interested.

Chicago Chapter Bilingualism Matters

Bilingualism Matters Chicago Chapter

Five Chicago-area universities, including the University of Illinois at Chicago (and Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, and the University of Chicago), established a Chicago chapter of Bilingualism Matters.  The Chicago chapter, which held its launch on March 19th, will work together with scientists and linguists to provide data to support schools and communities navigate bilingualism. According to a statement from the official site, all branches exist in order to engage the public with the latest research about bilingualism and language learning, and con provide more information in different languages. The organization was originally established in 2008 at the University of Edinburgh, and works to study bilingualism in order to inform and share perspectives on bilingual education, language learning, and the bilingual experience.

http://www.bilingualism-matters.ppls.ed.ac.uk/

https://today.uic.edu/new-research-center-to-support-chicagos-bilingual-population

https://sites.northwestern.edu/bilingualism/

Can you learn a new language in three weeks with Netflix?

With the rise of technology, there has also been a rise in methods and systems to learn languages, all promising fast and easy learning. One of the oldest and most well known options to learning a second language (or third or fourth) is Rosetta Stone. Having been around since 1992, the program’s approach is Dynamic Immersion, which introduces sights, sounds, words, and sentences in a way that is supposed to accelerate the learning program.

Then there are learning apps like Duo Lingo or Drops, which offer teaching through translating words and phrases, visual learning, and forced immersion, all on the learner’s own time. And, the newest option: Language Learning With Netflix (LLN), which provides subtitles in the original language and English in order to allow the watcher to experience a more immersive viewing.

But do any of these options work? And moreover, can they fully teach a new language in a limited amount of time? In short: no. In an article published by the BBC, two factors that contribute to the ease and speed are native tongue and the language that one is learning. Also noted is time dedicated to the task of learning. An hour of day can make a difference, but stronger immersion is needed to make for better learning. Recommended are reading and watching material in the target language, and participating in everyday activities in the target language.

One issue however, that does not make any of the programs or apps a one-size fits-all is that people have different learning styles. Some may benefit from memorization and pronunciation, some might favor visual learning/association, and even still, others might find it easier to learn through practical use and an immersive experience.

In the end, services like LLN, Duolingo, or Rosetta Stone may entice individual to start the process of learning a new language, but the benefits over other modes of language learning still need to be investigated. They can be a useful supplemental resource, but these services are not perfect tools to learn a new language, let alone learn a new language in three weeks.

http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20190219-how-to-learn-a-language-in-an-hour-a-day

https://www.studyinternational.com/news/should-students-use-netflix-to-learn-language/

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/02/netflix-languages-education

https://studybreaks.com/culture/drops-app-visual-language-learning/

Bilingualism Benefits Low-income Children

According to the Language magazine, a study was recently published by Pascale Engel de Abreu  and her colleagues from the University of Luxembourg which examined the effects of bilingualism on the functioning of low income children.

The study was done according to Engel de Abreu because low-income children are a vulnerable population, and studying cognitive processes in these children represents a significant advancement in the understanding of childhood development.

In their study, a total of 80 second grade students from low-income families participated. About half of the children were first or second generation immigrants to Luxembourg, who spoke both Luxembourgish and Portuguese. The other half of the children only spoke Portuguese and lived in Northern Portugal.

For this experiment both groups completed test in Portuguese and the bilingual children also completed the task in Luxembourgish in order to test their vocabulary skills. The researchers examined how the children represented knowledge in memory, using two different tasks to see how much visual information the children could keep in mind at a given time, according to the Language magazine.

According to Engel de Abreu, this is the first study of its kind to show that although minority bilingual children from low-income families face linguistic challenges, they also demonstrate important strengths in other cognitive domains.

The researchers also believe that these findings could help reduce the achievement gab between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Their findings, according to the Language magazine suggest that intervention programs that are based on second language teaching are good places to start for future research. Engel de Abreu ended by saying that foreign languages widen children’s linguistic and cultural horizons, and help foster healthy development of executive control and therefore should be pursued.

https://www.languagemagazine.com/2018/01/12/bilingualism-benefits-low-income-children/

https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/speaking-two-languages-also-benefits-low-income-children.html

 

Bilingualism: How we turn on and off languages

A team of researchers has uncovered the distinct computations that occur when individuals switch between different languages, this finding is important because it could provide new insights into the nature of bilingualism.

Appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, a New York University doctoral candidate and lead author of this study explained that their study helps pinpoint what occurs in the brain during the language switching process.

Most importantly, this will help better understand the neural activity that is exclusively associated with disengaging from one language and then engaging with a different one.

Previous studies have suggested that while disengaging from one language requires some cognitive effort, activating a new language comes relatively cost-free from a neurobiological standpoint. However, it was unknown until this study, whether it was disengaging from the previous language or engaging in a new language that drove the language switch.

Researchers studied bilingual individuals fluent in English and American Sign Language (ASL), since they often produce both languages simultaneously.

The results showed that when bilinguals fluent in ASL and English switched languages, turning a language “off” led to increased activity in cognitive control areas while turning a language “on” was no different than not switching, according to the article.

Over all, these findings suggested that the difficulty of language-switching does not lie in engaging a new language, but instead is due to the disengagement from the previous language, says Blanco-Elorrieta.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180910160656.htm

Cognitive benefits of bilingualism might have been overstated

A new study done by Minna Lehtonen and her research group at the Department of Psychology at Åbo Akademi University shows that bilingualism does not seem to increase the cognitive skills related to executive functions in adult bilinguals.

According to Lehtonen, “Active use of two languages and switching between languages has been believed to train these functions, but our comprehensive overview of the entire existing research does not support this statement”.

Their study consisted of a meta-analysis of a total of 152 studies focusing on bilingual and monolingual adults. The participants were judged on their performance in tasks that measured different areas of executive functions.

Studies like this one had also been preformed in 27 other countries where bilingualism takes many forms. In all of these studies according to Lehtonen and her team, no significant benefits were found for bilinguals in sub-areas of executive functions.

Factors that were specifically looked at included age of acquisition of the second language, the age of participant, and the language pair. According to Lehtonen, the results indicate that bilingualism or active use of another language does not improve executive functions in healthy adults.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180305093035.htm

You are more likely to deny the truth in your second language

This article written by Manon Jones and Ceri Ellis tells us that the perception of truth is slippery when viewed through different languages and cultures. This occurs so much that someone who speaks two languages can accept a fact in one language, while denying it in the other.

According to the authors, bilingual people often report that they feel different while switching from one language to another. The change in language goes hand-in-hand with perceptual, cognitive and emotional trends. Research shows that language is linked to experiences and helps shape the way we process information.

Psychology experiments have also shown that languages shape aspects of our visual perception, the way we categorize objects in our environment, and even the way we perceive events. This is basically saying that our sense of reality is constructed by the confines of the language we speak, according to the authors.

In the research done by Jones and Ellis, bilinguals interpreted facts differently depending on the language they were presented with, and depending on whether the fact made them feel good or bad about their native culture. This is important because until recently it was assumed that one’s understanding of meaning was shared across all the languages one speaks.

Jones and Ellis asked Welsh-English bilinguals- who had spoken Welsh since birth and considered themselves culturally Welsh- to rate sentences as true or false. The sentences had either a positive or negative cultural connotation, and were factually either true or false. The participants were asked to read them in both English and Welsh, they were asked to categories each one, and were attached to electrodes to record the implicit interpretation of each sentence.

The researchers found that in Welsh participants tended to be less biased and more truthful, and therefore they often correctly identified some unpleasant statements as true. In English, their bias resulted in a surprising defensive reaction: they denied the truth of unpleasant statements, therefore they would categorize them as false even when they were true.

This research showed the way in which language interacts with emotions trigger asymmetric effects on the participants interpretations of facts. They found that while participants’ native language is closely tied to their emotions – which perhaps comes with greater honesty and vulnerability – their second language was associated with more distant, rational thinking. These findings were reassured through the brain activity measures- because functioning in the second language appeared to protect them against unpalatable truths, and deal with them more strategically.

See full article here: https://theconversation.com/you-are-more-likely-to-deny-the-truth-in-your-second-language-82193

Bilingualism could offset brain changes in Alzheimer’s

This Concordia University study focused specifically on the effects of knowing a second language for patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI; at risk for AD).  Their study is innovative because previous studies had only focused on healthy young or healthy older adults.

According to Natalie Philips, a professor in the Department of Psychology, “having two languages exercises specific brain regions, can increase cortical thickness and grey matter density”.  The proof of this can be seen through the structural differences seen in the brains of multilingual AD and MCI patients.

This study was distinct from others because it was the first to use MRI data and sophisticated analysis techniques to measure cortical thickness and density of the tissues with specific brain areas. Phillips believes their study is the first to “assess the structure of MCI and AD patients language and cognition control regions,” as well as the first to make an association between those regions of the brain and memory function in these groups of people.

The results from Phillips study contribute to previous research that indicated speaking more than one language is one of many factors that contribute to cognitive reserve. The research supports the notion that multilingualism and its associated cognitive and sociocultural benefits are associated with brain plasticity, according to Phillips.

This study also suggests that multilingual people are able to compensate for AD-related tissue loss by accessing alternative networks of other brain regions for memory processing, stated by Phillips.

http://www.concordia.ca/cunews/main/stories/2018/02/06/bilingualism-could-offset-brain-changes-in-alzheimers.html

Click to access Duncan_et_al_2018.pdf

University of Ottawa study suggests Frenglais isn’t weakening French

Shana Poplack is a linguistic professor at the University of Ottawa who studied hundreds of Frenglais speakers to reach her conclusion; incorporating English into French language indeed has no negative impact on the language like most people in Canada had thought.

According to Poplack, research shows that many of the concerns people have about hybrid languages don’t hold up over the long term. In her study, she examined millions of words from speakers of Quebec French, as far back as 1846, and found that most of the borrowed ones simply disappear after their first mention.

According to Poplack, research has found that when English words do become part of the language they don’t permanently alter the fundamentals of the language. This means that when people borrow words, they ‘strip’ them of the grammatical properties that they come with.

In the case of French and English, “English words are treated just like any other French word, so mixing them has no effect on the grammatical core of the language,” according to Poplack. She said the reason she chose to study languages that blend together, specifically in Canada was because it is a bilingual country, where people speak French and English and they sometimes mix them. Poplack also said that she studies how people manage to mix the languages together and still maintain coherent sentences.

According to the article there are two basic ways in which bilinguals mix languages. The first is when the speaker is taking the word from the other language and incorporating it into the borrowing language. The other type of mixing is called code switching, which is basically an alternating between stretches of the two languages in use.

Poplack concluded by saying that the English being spoken in Frenglais is less that one per cent of all vocabulary being used. Therefore, the English words being used aren’t invading the language, in fact they are quite rare and are not bringing their grammatical properties with them.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-bilingualism-french-english-language-1.4523844?cmp=rss