Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Major languages are simpler than minor ones (yes, Chinese too)

Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure



Languages differ greatly both in their syntactic and morphological systems and in the social environments in which they exist. We challenge the view that language grammars are unrelated to social environments in which they are learned and used.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We conducted a statistical analysis of >2,000 languages using a combination of demographic sources and the World Atlas of Language Structures— a database of structural language properties. We found strong relationships between linguistic factors related to morphological complexity, and demographic/socio-historical factors such as the number of language users, geographic spread, and degree of language contact. The analyses suggest that languages spoken by large groups have simpler inflectional morphology than languages spoken by smaller groups as measured on a variety of factors such as case systems and complexity of conjugations. Additionally, languages spoken by large groups are much more likely to use lexical strategies in place of inflectional morphology to encode evidentiality, negation, aspect, and possession. Our findings indicate that just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. As adults learn a language, features that are difficult for them to acquire, are less likely to be passed on to subsequent learners. Languages used for communication in large groups that include adult learners appear to have been subjected to such selection. Conversely, the morphological complexity common to languages used in small groups increases redundancy which may facilitate language learning by infants.


We hypothesize that language structures are subjected to different evolutionary pressures in different social environments. Just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. The proposed Linguistic Niche Hypothesis has implications for answering the broad question of why languages differ in the way they do and makes empirical predictions regarding language acquisition capacities of children versus adults."


 "In Mandarin or Thai, which express both tense and remoteness lexically, speakers have the option of omitting the past tense entirely."

"Yagua, a language of Peru, has inflections that differentiate 5 levels of remoteness."

The link leads to the full text of the study which is worth checking out.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Phonology in Second Language Reading: Not an Optional Extra

Phonology in Second Language Reading:
Not an Optional Extra
Institute of Education, University of London
London, England

TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 42, No. 3, September 2008

"In examining reading comprehension in a second language (L2), I have demonstrated that the prevailing metaphor of transfer of skills is misleading, and that what happens is access to an already existing general cognitive skill. There is evidence in first language (L1) and in L2 that accessing this skill when reading in an alphabetic language involves efficient use of verbal working memory (VWM). This article reports a study of a component of VWM, the phonological loop, which serves to hold recently read material available in a phonological form. The study investigated whether the unreliability of learners’ mental L2 phonological inventories contributed to reading comprehension problems. Lower intermediate learners with L2 reading comprehension problems attempted to recall similar and dissimilar sequences of words in L1 (French) and L2 (English). Their performance was consistent with their having unreliable L2 phonological inventories; their upper intermediate counterparts, who had no L2 reading comprehension problems, had significantly more reliable L2 phonological inventories. This finding has important implications for the classroom: Rather than attempting to teach components of a cognitive skill that learners already possess, teachers would do better to spend the equivalent time increasing exposure to the spoken language, and improving receptive and productive phonology."


"Whatever the detailed explanation, this study has provided evidence that the development of a reliable phonological repertoire in L2 provides an important basis for skilful reading."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Individual differences in language learning

Dörnyei, Z., & Skehan, P. (2003). Individual differences in second language learning. In C. J. Doughty, & M. H. Long (Eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 589-630). Oxford: Blackwell.


i Is such a talent innate?
ii Is it relatively fixed?
iii If it is not fixed, is it amenable to training?
iv Is foreign language aptitude a distinct ability, or does it relate to more
general abilities, such as intelligence...

Carroll's four-component model of aptitude

1 Phonemic coding ability Capacity to code unfamiliar sound so that it can be retained over more than a few seconds and subsequently retrieved or recognized
2 Grammatical sensitivity Capacity to identify the grammatical functions that words fulfill in sentences
3 Inductive language Capacity to extract syntactic and morphological learning ability patterns from a given corpus of language material and to extrapolate from such patterns
4 Associative memory Capacity to form associative bonds in memory between LI and L2 vocabulary items

The link leads to the full text which is is very good and very long. The list of professor Dörnyei's selected publications includes some other downloadable content.

Rod Ellis Individual Differences in Second Language Learning
The Handbook of Applied Linguistics

Extract: "Learners vary enormously in how successful they are in learning a language. This is true for both first language (L1) and second language (L2) acquisition, although there is an important difference. In the case of L1 acquisition, children vary in their rate of acquisition but all, except in cases of severe environmental deprivation, achieve full competence in their mother tongue; in the case of L2 acquisition (SLA), learners vary not only in the speed of acquisition but also in their ultimate level of achievement, with a few achieving native-like competence and others stopping far short. How can we explain these differences in achievement? Broadly speaking, three different sets of explanatory factors have been identified; social, cognitive, and affective. This chapter, however, will consider only those factors that lie inside the learner - the cognitive and affective factors - and will focus on L2 learning. Individual difference research has a considerable history in applied linguistics. Horwitz (2000a) , reviewing publications in The Modern Language Journal from the 1920s up to the end of the 1970s, documents how interest in L2 learners’ differences evolved over the decades. She notes a marked change in the labels used to refer to individual differences: “The terms good and bad, intelligent and dull, motivated and unmotivated have given way to a myriad of new terms such as..."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Not so silent after all: Examination and analysis of the silent stage in childhood second language acquisition

Not so silent after all: Examination and analysis of the silent stage in childhood second language acquisition

Theresa A. Roberts
Department of Child Development, California State University


"A period of silence has been advanced as a characteristic feature of childhood second language acquisition. Evidence is presented to document that the presumption of silence as the second of four typical stages of second language acquisition has influenced policy and practice in preschool classrooms. A narrative review examines the extent and quality of the evidence for a silent stage in second language acquisition in young children. Twelve studies meeting inclusion criteria were reviewed and evaluated. Evidence of a silent, non-verbal, pre-production, or receptive language stage was limited. Significant conceptual and methodological limitations within the largely qualitative studies were found. Four major issues raised by the studies are elaborated upon: the theoretical clarity and operational definitions of silence and stage, phase, or period; the psychological meaning and consequences of silence; the cross-context consistency of individual patterns of silence; and how adult language elicitation and support techniques may modulate silence. Recommendations based on contemporary evidence of language acquisition processes are made for the future study of (1) second language acquisition in preschool children and (2) pedagogical practice within preschool settings to promote second language acquisition. Finally, historical, theoretical, empirical, and contextual influences likely to have given rise to the appeal and ready endorsement of silence as a consistent and typical characteristic of childhood second language acquisition are presented."

5. Conclusion
" The theoretical paradigm shift from behaviorism to cognitivism in full swing during the years when the silent stage was most vigorously studied (1970s–1980s) aligned with disciplinary developments
in linguistics, foreign language teaching, and second language acquisition; and with Piaget’s stage theory in developmental psychology to invigorate interest in and to shape the conceptual orientation of childhood second language acquisition toward a stage model. It was within this context that the idea of a silent stage in second language acquisition found fertile ground. The result of cross-disciplinary historical, theoretical, and empirical dynamics was a view of childhood second language acquisition that was philosophically appealing and ultimately very influential.

Theoretical over-generalization and simplification encouraged the view that silence was likely to be a discernible, typical, and consistent feature of second language development. Results of a limited number of studies on the silent stage indicate that these expectations are largely unsubstantiated based on widely held standards for what constitutes convincing research evidence. The findings are a reminder of the importance of seeking out and reviewing primary sources rather than relying on secondary sources that may not accurately portray the original results of investigations. This review draws attention to the vulnerability of scientific inquiry to theoretical difficulties and to methodologically weak investigation when research is framed by appealing metaphors standing on fragile conceptual and empirical structures..."

The link leads to the full text.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Research on dictionary use in foreign language learning

Research on dictionary use in foreign language learning

See also Monolingual dictionaries vs bilingual dictionaries

Rubin (1975) states that "the good language learner is a willing and accurate guesser".

Benoussan, Sim and Weiss (1984) found no correlation between dictionary use and reading comprehension scores of EFL/university students.

Hosenfeld (1984) prompts teachers to train learners in the use of guessing techniques, so that they can avoid the dictionary.

Carrell, Devine, & Eskey (1988) believe that L2 learners should consult a dictionary sparingly and only as a last resort.

Tono (1988) found positive correlation between dictionary skills and reading comprehension scores.

Summers (1988) Results suggest positive correlation between dictionary use and reading comprehension scores.

Neubach and Cohen (1988) Dictionary did not help much in reading comprehension of EFL/university students.

Laufer (2005) estimates that vocabulary learning from context is only possible and reliable when the student understands between 95% and 98% of the text.

Luppescu and Day (1993) suggest that the dictionary use can have a positive effect on vocabulary acquisition. 

Hulstijn (1993) EFL /Y 10-11 students with larger vocabularies looked up fewer words than subjects with smaller vocabularies. High inferring ability need not result in less dictionary use than low inferring ability.

Cho and Krashen (1994) in the Sweet Valley studies found out that, of the four test subjects, the two who used the dictionary learned more vocabulary per words read. The authors still wonder whether the time spent with the dictionary was well spent. An overview of free voluntary reading studies, controversies etc. can be found here.

Knight (1994) found that university students who used dictionaries learned more words but also achieved higher reading comprehension scores than those who guessed from context. The negative point in the use of the dictionary was the reading rate. 

Hulstijn, Hollander and Greidanus (1996) found out that when a student looked up a word in the dictionary, their retention rate was higher than other reading conditions such as marginal glosses. 

Fraser (1997) states that a strategic combination of guessing and dictionary use was the most effective way to deal with L2 reading comprehension. Results also revealed that consulting a dictionary was associated with substantial vocabulary learning. 

Songhao (1997) also remarks the positive effects of the dictionary use and how learners seem to have the need to confirm their guess and clarify their confusions with the dictionary.

Cote and Tejedor (1998) reveal the "widespread ignorance" about dictionary use on the students’ part.  Most students thought they were good at using a dictionary. It was observed that the students did not pay attention to the dictionary entry on the whole, but just looked for the L1 equivalent. 

Atkins and Varentola (1998) Lower proficiency students tend to use dictionaries more often in reading comprehension process. Lower proficiency EFL students did better with dictionaries than without dictionaries. No difference was found among higher proficiency students.

Prichard (2008) The findings suggest that high-intermediate and advanced learners are often selective when considering whether to look up a word. However, a third of the participants in the study were judged to have used the dictionary excessively. A quarter of the words were not essential for reading comprehension of the author's main points, nor "frequent or useful words," according to corpus research. It is concluded that some learners might benefit from training in selective dictionary use.

Mármol and Sánchez-Lafuente (2013) revealed that dictionary use is not efficient as expected. Yet, a positive attitude towards this tool prevails among the best performers.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Timed and untimed grammaticality judgments measure distinct types of knowledge

Timed and untimed grammaticality judgments measure distinct types of knowledge: Evidence from eye-movement patterns



"Grammaticality judgment tests (GJTs) have been used to elicit data reflecting second language (L2) speakers’ knowledge of L2 grammar. However, the exact constructs measured by GJTs, whether primarily implicit or explicit knowledge, are disputed and have been argued to differ depending on test-related variables (i.e., time pressure and item grammaticality).
Using eye-tracking, this study replicates the GJT results in R. Ellis (2005). Twenty native and 40 nonnative English speakers judged sentences with and without time pressure. Analyses revealed that time pressure suppressed regressions (right-to-left eye movements) in nonnative speakers only. Conversely, both groups regressed more on untimed, grammatical items. These findings suggest that timed and untimed GJTs measure different constructs, which could correspond to implicit and explicit knowledge, respectively. In particular, they point to a difference in the levels of automatic and controlled processing involved in responding to the timed and untimed tests. Furthermore, untimed grammatical items may induce GJT-specific task effects."

Learning to read words in a new language shapes the neural organization of the prior languages

Learning to read words in a new language shapes the neural organization of the prior languages


"Learning a new language entails interactions with one׳s prior language(s). Much research has shown how native language affects the cognitive and neural mechanisms of a new language, but little is known about whether and how learning a new language shapes the neural mechanisms of prior language(s). In two experiments in the current study, we used an artificial language training paradigm in combination with an fMRI to examine (1) the effects of different linguistic components (phonology and semantics) of a new language on the neural process of prior languages (i.e., native and second languages), and (2) whether such effects were modulated by the proficiency level in the new language. Results of Experiment 1 showed that when the training in a new language involved semantics (as opposed to only visual forms and phonology), neural activity during word reading in the native language (Chinese) was reduced in several reading-related regions, including the left pars opercularis, pars triangularis, bilateral inferior temporal gyrus, fusiform gyrus, and inferior occipital gyrus. Results of Experiment 2 replicated the results of Experiment 1 and further found that semantic training also affected neural activity during word reading in the subjects׳ second language (English). Furthermore, we found that the effects of the new language were modulated by the subjects׳ proficiency level in the new language. These results provide critical imaging evidence for the influence of learning to read words in a new language on word reading in native and second languages."