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."

Differences in brain circuitry may predict language learning success and failure

Learning a second language may depend on the strength of brain's connections

Date: January 20, 2016
Source: Society for Neuroscience
Summary: Learning a second language is easier for some adults than others, and innate differences in how the various parts of the brain "talk" to one another may help explain why. The findings "have implications for predicting language learning success and failure."

“The most interesting part of this finding is that the connectivity between the different areas was observed before learning,” said Arturo Hernandez, a neuroscientist at the University of Houston who studies second-language learning and was not involved in the study. “This shows that some individuals may have a particular neuronal activity pattern that may lend itself to better learning of a second language.”

The study was mentioned in the following news article:
Second language learning theories: Why is it hard for your adult brain to master another dialect?
(International Business Times)

Brain Processes Written Words as Unique Objects

The study:

Evidence for Highly Selective Neuronal Tuning to Whole Words in the “Visual Word Form Area”
Laurie S. Glezer, Xiong Jiang, Maximilian Riesenhuber


"Theories of reading have posited the existence of a neural representation coding for whole real words (i.e., an orthographic lexicon), but experimental support for such a representation has proved elusive. Using fMRI rapid adaptation techniques, we provide evidence that the human left ventral occipitotemporal cortex (specifically the “visual word form area,” VWFA) contains a representation based on neurons highly selective for individual real words, in contrast to current theories that posit a sublexical representation in the VWFA."

Full Text 

Reader-friendly news article

Brain processes written words as unique 'objects,' GUMC neuroscientists say (EureakAlert!)

"In their experiments, the researchers looked at the response between two visually similar normal words that shared all letters but one (i.e. 'boat' and 'coat') and found that the neural response to this condition "looked just like when participants saw two words that shared no letters, for example 'coat' and 'fish',"

The brain can add new words to its “visual dictionary” even if they are made up. The neurons in the 'visual word form area' are tuned to whole real words and this selectivity is developed through experience with words."

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The role of reward in word learning and its implications for language acquisition

The role of reward in word learning and its implications for language acquisition.

You may have learned about this study under a media headline such as:

"Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs"

Take a look what one of the authors has to say about this:

Sex, words and Rock&Roll? Not at all, just bad journalism


"The exact neural processes behind humans' drive to acquire a new language--first as infants and later as second-language learners--are yet to be established. Recent theoretical models have proposed that during human evolution, emerging language-learning mechanisms might have been glued to phylogenetically older subcortical reward systems, reinforcing human motivation to learn a new language. Supporting this hypothesis, our results showed that adult participants exhibited robust fMRI activation in the ventral striatum (VS)--a core region of reward processing--when successfully learning the meaning of new words. This activation was similar to the VS recruitment elicited using an independent reward task. Moreover, the VS showed enhanced functional and structural connectivity with neocortical language areas during successful word learning. Together, our results provide evidence for the neural substrate of reward and motivation during word learning. We suggest that this strong functional and anatomical coupling between neocortical language regions and the subcortical reward system provided a crucial advantage in humans that eventually enabled our lineage to successfully acquire linguistic skills."

Friday, March 4, 2016

Insight into Learners’ Perspectives on Watching Movies with L1 vs. L2 Subtitles

Insight into Learners’ Perspectives on Watching Movies with L1 vs. L2 Subtitles

Focusing on Language
Chia-jung Tsai
National Changhua University of Education

This is a companion piece to Foreign Subtitles Help and Native Language Subtitles Harm

See also: Target Language Subtitles for Comprehensible Film Language Input

The study suggests that learners may improve their spelling, word recognition ability, pronunciation of new words and words they have already acquired, their understanding of spoken language, and intonation when they watch movies with the L2 subtitles.


"Watching movies with either L1 or L2 subtitles seems to be both advantageous and disadvantageous, but for lower-intermediate learners, it might be that the L2 subtitles are more beneficial. The L1 subtitles may merely enable learners to improve their language proficiency in terms of vocabulary, listening comprehension of the language and oral abilities to a very limited extent. The responses revealed from this study suggest that learners can learn simple words from what they hear with the Chinese subtitles, remember simple sentences, monitor their listening comprehension, and acquire spoken language. However, these will occur only when the words and phrases are relatively easy or sufficiently familiar to the learners. Katchen (1996b) found that the use of the L1 subtitles was beneficial for the advanced learners, but the L1 subtitles might not be so useful for the lower-intermediate learners as their vocabulary size is far smaller.
On the contrary, learners may gain more language from watching movies with the L2 subtitles. This study suggests that learners may improve their spelling, word recognition ability, pronunciation of new words and words they have already learned, understanding of spoken language, and intonation.
However, the effects of the use of the L2 subtitled movie may be still limited as this study also discovered that learners could not really accurately pronounce words with only one exposure to the L2 subtitled movie. Repeated exposure may provoke far more language learning as Chang and Read (2007) discovered that repeating the same input was the most effective. Some participants also suggested watching a movie repeatedly with the L1 subtitles first, followed by the L2 subtitles. The similar process was also recommended in Markham et al.’s (2001) paper where the researchers suggested watching the same movie three times with the L1 subtitles first, the L2 subtitles second, and no subtitles last. This sequence would allow learners to use their stronger native language reading skills first; followed by using their emerging but more or less weaker target-language reading skills. Finally, learners would be ready to rely totally on their much weaker target language listening skills.
It may be worth considering as well that whether to watch movies with the L2 subtitles or the L1 subtitles depends on the goals of teaching. For instance, if the teaching goal is to help students improve their pronunciation and spelling, watching movies with the L2 subtitles may be a choice.
Alternatively, combining watching movies subtitled with the target language with other teaching techniques may provoke the best benefits for lower-intermediate learners; for example, to supply the learners with some comprehension assistance, such as vocabulary pre-viewing and repeated exposure to the target language (Chang, 2005)."