Unraveling the Mystery of Language Acquisition
As an undergraduate Kara Morgan-Short, assistant professor in the Departments of Hispanic and Italian Studies and Psychology and director of the Cognition of Second Language Acquisition Laboratory, struggled with her language requirement in Spanish. “I was in school in Austin, Texas, a humanities major looking at doing something dealing with social inequalities in the U.S.,” she said. “I thought it would be really helpful to learn Spanish. I was a very good student, but learning the new language was quite challenging. Then I went to Spain on a study-abroad program and that opened my eyes to all the other worlds out there; I wanted to be able to communicate outside of my relatively isolated world.
“I thought teaching in the public schools would help effect social change and I became a teacher of Spanish, and English as a Second Language. After about five years I really began to wonder about the way we teach language. That question led me to return to school for an MA in the teaching of language, during which I was exposed to the field of applied linguistics. In addition to studying syntax, grammar, vocabulary and phonology, we looked at the question of how individuals acquire language and grammar. This led to my doctoral work investigating how adults acquire second languages.”
Language is the portal to understanding other cultures....Hopefully this research will contribute to those efforts.
Her dissertation research examined whether adults need grammatical explanation of second-language forms or whether they do better learning in an immersion-type situation. “I needed to branch out into cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology in order get insight from those fields about how adults learn in general and to tap into techniques that neuroscientists use to actually look at the processes in the brain,” she explained.
LAS student and study participant Christian Alvarado gets fitted with electrode cap.
One of the neuroscience techniques is a cap studded with electrodes that allows Morgan-Short to detect ERPs (Event Related Potentials), which are electrophysiological signals measured from the scalp that reflect brain processes. ERPs can be used as indicators of how the brain is responding to learning—for example, past tense in English or new vocabulary.
“The question of grammar-based versus immersion-type teaching is centrally what my studies are still trying to determine,” said Morgan-Short. For a recent study, she and her team created an artificial second language that is “consistent with a real language and affords complete control over aspects of the language such as the pronunciation of the words so that study participants can focus on learning the vocabulary and grammar.
“There are some interesting results: The group that learned the artificial language with grammatical explanation learned it with approximately 90% proficiency rates. The immersion-based technique group learned it just as well, but also showed brain responses similar to what native speakers show when using their language of origin.”
Alvarado in electrode cap.
Now Morgan-Short and her research assistants are also looking at individual differences to try and solve the mystery of why some people struggle with language learning while others pick up multiple languages with ease.
“There are several different kinds of cognitive abilities. It has been suggested that IQ plays a role in second-language acquisition. That appears to explain language learning at low levels of proficiency, but not higher levels of proficiency; IQ does not seem to predict who becomes fluent with ease. Some people have looked at working memory—the ability to hold and process information in your mind. We look at and measure both of those. We also measure declarative memory—the ability to remember new facts—and procedural memory—the ability to pick up sequences and patterns. Basically, declarative memory is knowledge about what and procedural memory is knowledge about how. Recent models have suggested that declarative memory and procedural memory play a role in language both in native speakers and second-language learners.
“We’re combining the different learner profiles with the two teaching methods and testing to see if someone with better procedural memory would excel with a teaching method in which they don’t get grammatical instruction and if someone with better declarative memory would do better with grammatical instruction.
“Ultimately the larger theoretical goal is to learn how the mind works. But the research has more immediate, real-world applications. While it would be impractical to implement in a classroom, you could collaborate with computer scientists to develop computer applications in which you screen for the learning-style profile and then go through instruction type A or B on the computer exercises, providing students with customized learning tools to enhance their classroom experience.”
While second-language fluency is a wonderful personal enhancement that increases one’s ability to fully experience literatures, cultures and world travel, Morgan-Short emphasizes the importance of language skills in the business and political arenas. “A friend in bank financing is learning French because he works with the French financial system and he needs to have proficiency to do his job better. If you could customize the learning process it would be far more efficient, particularly for busy adults with career-specific goals,” she said. “There’s a statistic out from the state department that only a fourth of those in the Foreign Service really have adequate proficiency to do their job. Language is the portal to understanding other cultures. In order for the U.S. to do the best work we can in international relations, we are going to have to learn to communicate. Hopefully this research will contribute to those efforts.”
Photos by Laura Ress Design